Robbie Earle dismissed over misuse of tickets

An interesting story in the news today concerns the case of Robbie Earle, the ITV football pundit who was dismissed yesterday on the basis that he had sold his ticketing allocation in breach of his contractual obligations to ITV.

The misuse of complimentary tickets is an old story at many major sports occasions. It is something that tournament organisers are particularly worried about, because the tickets which are given to the sponsors, broadcasters and their staff tend typically to be in “official” areas, and one of the things that organisers of major events like to do is to be able to police in those areas without undue complications. If therefore the people sitting in those areas are the family and friends of a corporate employee with links to the tournament, they usually have some confidence that they will behave themselves. When those tickets go into the open market, anything can happen. The tournament organisers therefore will be very stringent in the terms they attach to complimentary tickets and the steps that ITV has taken could be little more than they are obliged to take to save face.

What of course made this case particularly prominent is the fact that the tickets seem to have wound up in the hands of a group of young women wearing orange minidresses sent by Bavaria, a Dutch beer company. There are some reports that the women were interviewed by FIFA officials after they were removed from the stadium. This is being treated as "ambush marketing" against the official beer of the tournament, Budweiser.

Ambush marketing is another major issue for the organisers of tournaments and events. They provide their sponsors with exclusivity in terms of visible or otherwise perceptible branding activities within venues, and part of the deal is that they will do everything they can to avoid any branding for rival businesses to be perceptible in any way.

This is comparatively straightforward in terms of trying to ensure that nobody brings in banners which are advertising for competing brands, or looks to distribute leaflets, advertising or sample products and so forth at the ground; where it gets more difficult is in instances such as the present. There is little or no perceptible branding on the dresses worn by the women who attended for Bavaria. The colour they wore is certainly distinctive, but is the familiar colour worn almost universally by supporters of the Dutch football team. It may be this in some way chimes with earlier advertising conducted by Bavaria and therefore fits in to a coherent marketing message for which visible branding at the game itself is not necessary. That is something which it will always be fairly difficult to prevent.

Football crowds and crowds for any form of sporting occasion come into a venue covered in brand logos. If the official mobile phone is Nokia, that does not prevent somebody bringing an iPhone into the ground. Where the line is drawn is a difficult one and based frequently on perception of the purpose for which a brand is worn or a product used in camera shot. Here it seems that FIFA have had the ability to eject the offending parties, probably on the basis that the tickets in question were being misused as complimentary tickets which had not gone into the commercial or open market.

However, this has only served to make it a huge publicity coup for Bavaria already, and it may be interesting to see what happens as the tournament progresses. One thing that ambush marketing has taught us in the past is that all publicity is good publicity within reason, and the press coverage of these stunts is far more valuable (and “cool”) than advertising that might be paid for on the opposite page. The Tournament Organisers do their best to keep stadia clean for their sponsors, as they must, and there are no awards for sense of humour when multi-million pound sponsorship contracts are at stake. Sponsors are entitled to demand the rights they have paid for and the commercial success of the tournament, with all the benefits that will bring to football in South Africa, deserves to be protected.

But having said all that, you do have a certain grudging admiration for the endless ingenuity of the ambushers. They will never entirely be kept out, at least not until every team is paying a troupe of Chinese actors to turn up and cheer for them, as North Korea seem to be doing!

Published June 16, 2010

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