World Cup bid underdog Morocco may upset the heavyweights
Even facing superpower opposition from a US group's push to host the 2026 competition, the North African country's effort is gaining momentum with sponsors
“Can we make money for Fifa?” asked Hicham El Amrani, the leader of Morocco’s bid for the 2026 World Cup.
Speaking in a high-end restaurant in Tangier overlooking the European coastline as he ran through the North African kingdom’s bid last week, Mr El Amrani’s question was rhetorical. He answered it anyway: “Yes we can.”
A World Cup in North Africa will generate revenues of $7.2 billion and profits for Fifa of $5bn, claims Morocco.
As the last World Cup in Brazil generated $4.8bn revenue and a $2.6bn profit for Fifa, Morocco’s pledge sounds promising.
The problem is that Rabat's competition in the 2026 bid race is led by the United States, which has the world’s most developed sports market.
Global sports sponsorship revenues are expected to reach $17.6bn this year and hit $19.9bn by 2021, according to the latest edition of PwC’s Sports Outlook.
The bid by United 2026, which also includes Canada and Mexico, claims it can generate revenue of $14bn in revenue and a $11bn profit for Fifa, the world governing body for football, but after investigations into the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in Russia and Qatar and a six-year ban imposed on former Fifa president Sepp Blatter, are such figures achieveable?
Sponsors have proved slow to emerge for this year’s World Cup and another highly corporatised tournament in North America may not be what they want, according to experts, who see appeal in the unlikely destination of Morocco.
“There is a perception that the next two World Cups feel a bit tainted after all the fall-out from Blatter, [Russia's Olympic Games in] Sochi and the documentaries about doping," says Anthony Marcou, chief executive of international sports and media rights agency Sports Revolution.
“America now says football is their fourth sport and, of course, they would do well with all the global brands there, but people want something more exciting. I don’t think there are any ideological objections to a North African World Cup and that’s what brands want.
“Let’s be honest, Morocco is not going to be a global superpower but it will catch the attention and people want something more exciting. Morocco has the potential to feel like an organic tournament and sponsors like that.”
A Moroccan World Cup in 2026 would bring in $3.1bn from TV rights, but this is only a conservative estimate. The rights for 2026 for Europe and Africa have not been auctioned off yet and could go for more given that the time difference between Morocco and these regions is only a couple of hours. A World Cup in the North Africa country also would generate $1.1bn from ticketing and $3bn from marketing and other revenues, it claims.
Bidders cannot sign up sponsors before a decision is made but the Moroccans have already sounded out potential.
“All the major corporations within Morocco but also in the African region and beyond wrote to the bid [group] to commit to this World Cup, whether in terms of national sponsors or technical support,” says Mr El Amrani.
“We know global corporations are interested because they know the value of the tournament and the type of TV audiences that we can reach. We have been in touch with European, non-Europeans and African [sponsors].”
Morocco’s proposal is 100 per cent bankrolled by the government but there are strong private sector links, too.
Bid president Moulay Hafid Elalamy owns the conglomerate Saham, which recently sold its insurance arm CNIA Saada for $1bn to South African company, Sanlam.
Mr Elalamy is also Morocco’s minister for trade and has played a key role in attracting investment, which has helped the economy grow significantly since the last bid for a World Cup back in 2003. Then, gross domestic product was $52bn. In 2017, it was $111bn.
After a visit to China in 2016 by Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, an economic zone in Fez is being created to attract investments in automobile, aviation, agriculture, health and renewable energy and investment is growing from Chinese companies.
Chinese renewable energy company BYD is building an electric car manufacturing plant near Tangier.
Renewable energy companies have also used World Cups to activate sponsorships - electric motorcycle manufacturer Yadea has signed a deal for the 2018 competition.
Would inward investors want to sponsor a Moroccan World Cup? While not naming names, Mr El Amrani says: “There are a lot of current economic partners of Morocco that are naturally interested.”
World Cup sponsorship has historically been reliant on big global brands and many of the big names active in in Morocco originate from former colonial power France.
French brands in Morocco range from supermarket group Carrefour and petrol station chain Total to conglomerate Bouygues, whose interests cover a broad swathe of industries, from mobile phones to construction.
There is also a burgeoning manufacturing industry. French car makers Renault and Peugeot are in Morocco, along with other multinationals such as Boeing.
What proves attractive to these companies and other investors is the due to the proximity to Europe.
The Spanish mainland is just 14 kilometres away from where Mr El Amrani was outlining Rabat's bid and Morocco’s position as a gateway to Africa for Europe and the Middle East is proving attractive for tourism.
In 2017, 11.3 million tourists visited Morocco and a World Cup in 2026 is expected to attract an extra 500,000 tourists.
The number of airlines flying to Morocco is also growing with direct flights today to 110 cities in 52 countries including South America and the Middle East.
Emirates began flying direct from Dubai to Casablanca in 2017 and Morocco’s close proximity to the region and Europe makes sponsorship from the tourism industry likely should its bid prevail, suggests Kelvin Watt, regional managing director of Nielsen Sports in Africa and the Middle East.
“On the industrial side, the fast-moving consumer goods sector there is not so big due to the size of the country and the reality is that the prices Fifa charge means that the big global brands will be involved but there will be some local brands," he says.
“In South Africa , we didn’t have anywhere near the amount of football tourists that we expected but it’s possible to go for the weekend to Morocco from Europe. So, there will be some strong commercial tie-ins from the travel and tourism industry [if Morocco win].”
Morocco’s campaign has also been indirectly helped by an aggressive approach to geopolitics by the US president Donald Trump.
“In theory at least, a combined 2026 North American bid was supposed to be the safe bet for Fifa, after years of controversy for the governing body," says Simon Chadwick, a professor of sports enterprise at Salford University in England. "The US is the biggest, most mature and stable sports economy in the world, while Canada would bring openness and progressive politics and Mexico has a huge appetite for football and strong economic growth figures.
“The triumvirate was supposed be good for Fifa's image, its reputation and its pockets - and for Fifa's sponsors, too. Moreover, it would have helped assuage concerns about allegations of corruption around the 2018 and 2022 bids. However, with tensions between the three nations emerging and the Trump administration's bullish approach to local and global geopolitics, what should have been a dream ticket is fast becoming a nightmare.
“The introspection this has engendered means that, almost by default, Morocco has been able to capitalise upon the situation.”
So, can Morocco triumph with its fifth bid to host a World Cup?
Before the vote on June 13, Fifa will rate bids on a scale of zero to five on issues from stadiums and hotels to infrastructure. To pass, no scores must be lower than two.
At the end of May, Fifa’s executive committee will issue its technical a report. Providing Morocco passes, its bid will then go to a Fifa congress for the vote.
Morocco cannot vote but support is expected from the bulk of the Confederation of African Football’s 53 eligible members with the likes of Algeria, Angola, Gambia, Kenya, Nigeria, and Tunisia publicly coming out in favour.
Russia backed Morocco early on and a European tour by Moroccan Royal Football Federation president Fouzi Lekjaa in March secured pledges from Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Serbia. Support is growing elsewhere in Europe, but the South and Central American nations are expected to back United 2026.
Surprisingly, some Caribbean nations such as Dominica and St Lucia voiced support for Morocco and the vote among the 11 members of Oceania is equally split.
With a decision likely to be far closer than expected, Middle East votes could prove crucial. Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine favour Morocco, although Saudi Arabia is supporting United 2026.
Voting intentions will be made public by Fifa after the poll, when the successful bid will begin and the search for sponsors and the true value of a 2026 World Cup start to emerge.
Updated: May 14, 2018 03:35 PM