How Gazprom is Using Soccer to Spread Russian Influence Abroad
Advertising has long had a strong presence in soccer, as it has more viewership than any other sport, with millions of fans tuning in every week. However, Gazprom has interests far deeper than just selling products to soccer fans—interests including the advancement of Russian influence in Europe.
But before getting into their motives, it’s important to get an overview of Gazprom and their involvement in the sport.
Gazprom is a mostly state-owned Russian gas company and is currently the largest producer of gas in the world. Unlike more well-known sponsors like Mastercard that sell their products to normal people, Gazprom sells its product to foreign governments.
The gas giant has been a sponsor of the UCL since 2012 and also sponsors the FIFA World Cup. In addition, Gazprom has sponsored several teams, including Schalke 04 and Red Star Belgrade, and their advertisements can be found in several leagues including Serie A. The Russian Football Federation even named Gazprom’s Chief Executive Alexander Dyukov as its president.
But Gazprom’s heavy advertising presence raises an important question: why does a Russian gas giant care about soccer?
One motive is to use soccer to build a more friendly image for the public. After all, the company has long been extracting resources in the Arctic Circle and causing pollution, which has sparked protests from environmental groups. More noticeable is the company’s involvement in foreign politics, which has produced considerable backlash and unfavorable headlines. So if people start to associate Gazprom with soccer, perhaps they’ll see the company in a better light and forget about its negative aspects.
Another motive is to use soccer as an aid in diplomatic procedures with countries they’re selling gas to. Their sponsorships gain them access to corporate hospitality suites in stadiums, which usually accommodate high-ranking people, including politicians. And this hospitality can go far beyond access to the games by including transportation, lodging, meals and more for guests and their families. Entertaining influential guests plays an important role in helping Gazprom build important relations and advance their interests.
Sponsorships have even coincided with new pipeline projects in foreign countries. A perfect example is the link between Gazprom’s Nord Stream 1 pipeline in Germany and their sponsorship of German soccer club Schalke 04.
For years, Germany has presented a huge business opportunity for Gazprom, as the country has become increasingly dependent on natural gas. The problem is, to get gas to Germany, past pipelines had to pass through several countries, bringing heavy transport fees. To solve this, Gazprom built the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, which went through the Baltic Sea and directly connected Russia to Germany with no middlemen.
The project was approved in 2005 by then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Schroeder lost his re-election soon after, but quickly found new employment with none other than Gazprom. In his new job, he helped oversee the construction of the new pipeline.
Schroeder’s transition sparked heavy backlash from the German media and public with many claiming that he sold himself out to Russia. Gazprom received many negative headlines and fear grew over Russia’s increasing influence in Germany.
To get a better public image to make the project run smoother, Gazprom found a perfect solution: struggling German soccer club Schalke 04. When Gazprom sponsored Schalke in 2006, the club was in a financial hole, and the gas giant gave them the funds they so desperately needed. Soon enough, German media was praising Gazprom for saving Schalke and taking the club to new levels. Headlines changed from “Schroeder Criticized for Taking Post with Russian Gas Giant” to “Gazprom Pumps Millions into Schalke.” The soccer club then unveiled their new kit:
Gazprom’s logo now became a team symbol associated with soccer and attention was taken away from its negative political stunts in the recent past. Since then, another project has come into work: Nord Stream 2. This is a second pipeline also going through the Baltic Sea that will double the supply of gas to Germany. Nord Stream 1 & 2 show Gazprom’s ability to use soccer to greatly sway public opinion and advance their interests abroad. And since the Russian government owns a majority of the company, Gazprom’s interests are also Russia’s interests.
Gazprom would then take their advertising power beyond Germany. They have completed sponsorship deals with Chelsea FC, Serbian club Red Star Belgrade, the UCL, and the FIFA World Cup. But this spreading influence hasn’t been limited to soccer, as Russia now controls about 40% of the gas consumed by Europe.
The use of soccer to advance a country’s interests isn’t limited to Gazprom. More well-known sponsors, like Qatar Airways, Fly Emirates, and Etihad Airways are also owned by foreign countries (Qatar and the UAE), and their interests are not limited to selling airline tickets.
State-backed sponsors like Gazprom show how countries can use soccer as a vehicle to spread their economic influence around the world. These sponsorships are exciting for fans, as they financially boost clubs. But there are often much more complex matters at play that reach far beyond the field.