` `

Why Puma’s Termination of Its Sponsorship of the Israeli Football Association Is Claimed as a BDS Victory

Victoria Schneider Victoria Schneider
24th December 2023
Why Puma’s Termination of Its Sponsorship of the Israeli Football Association Is Claimed as a BDS Victory
BDS cited win against apartheid (Getty)

Shortly after German sports giant PUMA announced that it will not renew its kit partnership with the Israeli Football Association (IFA) in 2024, the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement announced that the decision was linked to years of campaigning against PUMA’s support for the Israeli apartheid state. 

PUMA has been one of the most prominently targeted brands by BDS since it took over sponsorship of the IFA from its competitor Adidas in 2018. The grassroots movement, which aims to achieve justice for Palestinians through economic pressure following the example of the boycott that brought down the racist apartheid system in South Africa, says that 

BDS and other activist organizations say that the #boycottpuma campaign has caused enormous pressure on the multinational, referring to leaked internal messages from the company.

A supporting image within the article body

In a response to Misbar, PUMA's head of Corporate Communications Robert Bartunek did not say anything about the BDS, but wrote that the decision was part of the company's “Fewer-Bigger-Better” strategy which it launched in late 2022. "Changes were made based on an analysis of the current portfolio of the national teams which included commercial factors or the participation at big international tournaments. While two new national teams, including one statement team, will be announced this year, the contracts with several federations such as Serbia or Israel will run out in 2024."

According to Bartunek, the decision was made in 2022, "within the timeline of design and production of the jersey" and added that the company’s annual return increased during the last years, implying that the boycott did not affect the financials. 

BDS responded with this: “The aggregate annual return of any multinational may hide losses in specific regions or sectors. In addition, PUMA’s most valuable asset is its brand image. The Boycott PUMA campaign successfully tarnished that image, exposing PUMA’s hypocrisy for projecting an image of social responsibility and support for progressive causes, such as Black Lives Matter, yet simultaneously supporting Israeli war crimes, as settlements are regarded under international law.”

The past years have shown that BDS’ awareness campaign of Israel’s human rights violations against Palestinians can effectively lead to change. A spokesperson from BDS told Misbar that “long-term strategic BDS campaigns aim to impact the business of companies complicit in Israel’s grave crimes against Palestinians, speaking the language they understand to force them to end their complicity.”

Over the years, a series of clubs and individuals have stopped business with the brand, directly or indirectly referring to not wanting to be affiliated with Israel. The campaign also led to people publicly calling Rihanna and NCT 127 to stop working with the brand. 

Malaysia’s largest university, the Universiti Teknologi MARA, announced in 2020 that it dropped PUMA as the main sponsor of its football club due to its support of human rights violations by Israel against Palestinians.  

Clubs like Luton Town Football Club or Qatar Sports Club (2021) also stopped cooperating with PUMA, and even though not explicitly stating it, it sounded like PUMA’s link to Israel had become too problematic. 

"We are delighted to be partnering with a new supplier who shares many of our own brand values especially with regards to sustainability and ecological issues among other values," wrote Luton Town at the time, announcing its partnership with UMBRO. 

A supporting image within the article body

While the impact of boycotts is not easy to measure, scholars have found that they can play a decisive role in corporate decision making. Often, the threat of negative reputation through media coverage is more relevant than actual financial losses, found Braydon King, associate professor in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, in a 2008 study about how boycotts can affect corporations

“Boycotts may not need to affect sales at all in order to be effective,” wrote Braydon King in an analysis of boycotts in the United States between 1990 and 2005. “Rather, boycotters’ influence stems from their ability to make negative claims about the corporation that generate negative public perceptions of the corporation. Hence, corporations that are already struggling to maintain their previously positive reputations will be more likely to concede to boycotts and quell any further damage the boycott may do to their reputation.”

BDS targets companies “that participate in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians” in an attempt to ultimately increase economic pressure on Israel similar to the boycott that eventually forced the racist South African apartheid regime to fall. The call is non-violent and is directed at “international civil society organizations and people of conscience all over the world.”

The #BoycottPuma awareness campaign, which featured regular global boycott PUMA days of action, was a multi-layered call to action against PUMA to stop supporting the IFA which includes six football teams in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. 

Human Rights Watch has condemned that the IFA includes these illegal clubs. Program Director Sari Bashi called on “FIFA to instruct the Israel Football Association to stop holding matches in West Bank settlements,” just as it had instructed its European branch UEFA to ban clubs from occupied Crimea from the Russian Football Union in 2014.

FIFA rules do not allow its member associations to play on the territory of another member association without their consent, and Israel has been doing just that. 

A supporting image within the article body

The BDS movement has claimed several corporate decisions, including the large companies Veolia and Orange’s termination of business in Israel, as well as PUMA's predecessor adidas’ decision to not renew its contract with the IFA in 2018. According to the movement, BDS campaigns have cost multinationals billions of dollars in terminated contracts and corporate divestments and were the reason for the decrease of direct foreign investment in Israel. 

A supporting image within the article body

Misbar reached out to BDS representatives to inquire about the issue. 

BDS responses 

Misbar- With regards to the PUMA decision, could you explain how BDS claims victories like these, what is measured and what makes you confident that the decision was a result of the BDS campaign? 

BDS- It varies from campaign to campaign, but in the case of PUMA, there were a number of indicators. First and foremost, PUMA chose now to leak its decision not to renew the Israel Football Association (IFA) contract, which doesn’t expire for another year, to the press. This is a highly unusual move. Not renewing a contract is generally not newsworthy. It demonstrates that PUMA desperately sought to distance itself from Israel at a time when it is carrying out a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.

PUMA has always argued that it was not implicated in Israel’s apartheid regime, falsely claiming it has no ties with teams in illegal Israeli settlements on stolen Palestinian land, while its logo can be seen below a map of them on the IFA’s website. PUMA’s contract is with the IFA, which governs and advocates to maintain illegal settlement teams.

In addition, we have had direct feedback from the company itself. A lawyer for PUMA told us that the boycott campaign was making their lives “miserable.”

In a  leaked internal memo from May 2021, as Israel was once again bombing Palestinians in Gaza, PUMA admitted to seeing “an increase in the number of requests from our business partners and ambassadors regarding our presence” in what PUMA euphemistically calls the “region.” In response to these requests, PUMA resorted to outright lies, falsely claiming that it sponsors both the Israel Football Association (IFA) and the Palestinian Football Association (PFA), something the PFA flatly denied and was proved false.

When the advocacy group Ekō, formerly SumOfUs, which has collected more than 140,000 signatures on a petition calling on PUMA to end support for Israeli apartheid, requested a meeting with PUMA, the CEO attended and was visibly angry and irritated by the spreading boycott campaign!

At the PUMA AGM earlier this year, the CEO mistakenly said “BDS” instead of “BCI” while talking about the Better Cotton Initiative in front of 200 shareholders.

Over five years of a global boycott, the campaign has created costs and reputational damage to PUMA. Top tier league clubs such as the Oakland Roots in California, Qatar Sports Club, and U.K. club Luton Town did not renew with PUMA in response to the boycott campaign. The football team of Malaysia’s largest university also dropped PUMA. And U.K. team Forest Green Rovers pledged not to sign with PUMA as long as it remains complicit in Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights. The club chair stated that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians is the "the greatest injustice of my lifetime."

Queer artists refused a lucrative Pride collaboration offer from PUMA and went public with their decision.  

Since Israel started its genocide of Palestinians in Gaza, news media reported on fans urging NCT 127 and Rihanna to end collaboration with PUMA. O’Neills, Ireland's largest sportswear chain, removed PUMA products from its shops following calls from Palestine solidarity groups. And Irish teams joined the boycott, calling on members and fans to boycott PUMA.

Misbar- PUMA sent us a response to our query, saying that their annual return has increased between 2018 and 2022 (I assume they were implying that the campaign hasn't impacted them financially) - what was it in your view, if not finances, that made them pull out? 

BDS- As evidenced above, the boycott campaign created costs for PUMA. The aggregate annual return of any multinational may hide losses in specific regions or sectors. In addition, PUMA’s most valuable asset is its brand image. The Boycott PUMA campaign successfully tarnished that image, exposing PUMA’s hypocrisy for projecting an image of social responsibility and support for progressive causes, such as Black Lives Matter, yet simultaneously supporting Israeli war crimes, as settlements are regarded under international law. 

Many companies – such as G4S, Veolia, CRH, Orange, etc. – have been compelled by the BDS movement to end their complicity in apartheid Israel’s grave human rights violations against Palestinians. They learned the hard way that reputational damage inevitably leads to financial damage. The BDS campaign’s success in tarnishing PUMA’s image has therefore played the most important role in the company’s decision not to renew the IFA contract.

PUMA claims the decision was business-related. We couldn’t agree more! Long-term strategic BDS campaigns aim to precisely impact the business of companies complicit in Israel’s grave crimes against Palestinians, speaking the language they understand to force them to end their complicity.

Misbar- In general, what is the strongest impact BDS has on companies - is it reputation or finances, or what makes the boycott work? Maybe you could give an example or two that we can use to illustrate how boycott or divestment has been efficient in the past and was inspired by BDS. 

BDS- The impact of boycott campaigns will vary based on the type of company or institution. The long-running campaign that successfully forced Veolia to withdraw from its activities supporting Israel’s illegal settlement infrastructure in the occupied Palestinian territory cost the company billions (by some count over $20b) by campaigning on local municipalities and institutions to exclude the company from tenders and contracts. 

The intersectional campaign on private security firm G4S focused on its grave abuses of prisoners, including Palestinians in Israeli jails, and migrants around the world. By convincing major investors, including churches and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to divest from the company, the damage was both reputational and financial, leading G4S to withdraw from Israel's prison system, military checkpoints, and illegal settlements.   

These are all examples of long-term, selective, strategic BDS campaigns that have had a tangible impact on companies and institutions complicit in Israel’s crimes against Palestinians as part of our struggle for freedom, justice, and equality.  

Misbar- Is there any research on boycotts and how they work that you can share?

BDS- Boycott is not never a one-size-fits-all tactic. The key operational principles of the BDS movement are gradualness, sustainability and context sensitivity. The latter means that every BDS campaign in any specific setting must take into account the particularities of that context in developing an effective, impactful strategy. 

The first step in selecting a target for a boycott campaign is to research that potential target and check whether our four target selection criteria apply to it. These criteria are: 

1. The level of complicity: The deeper the complicity of a company/institution/event in grave Israeli violations of international law, the easier it is to mobilize wider support for BDS action against it. There are hundreds of international companies and banks that are in some way complicit in Israeli apartheid, so we need to focus on the worst offenders and through the selected target teach the rest a lesson.

2. The potential for forming a broad, cross-movement coalition against the target: A divestment campaign targeting Chevron, for example, makes much more sense than a divestment campaign targeting a company that only infringes on Palestinian rights, because Chevron is a target of climate activists worldwide. Intersectional coalitions are especially crucial to maximize the potential of winning against large, powerful multinationals.

3. Media appeal: If two companies are equally complicit, and we must choose, it is more effective to go after the more publicly recognized brand, as that usually attracts more media attention and allows us to educate and reach out to a much larger audience.

4. Potential for success: Even if the above three conditions are met, we don’t launch a campaign against a target unless we have a reasonable chance of success in reaching our objectives. Success can sometimes just mean educating a wide mainstream audience and winning their support, rather than actually canceling an event or a contract, say. But symbolic victories alone are not sufficient. 

BDS is about ending state, corporate, and institutional complicity in Israel’s regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid through building people power and intersectional coalitions to affect policy change. Only through sustained, cumulative, growing, and mainstreaming successes can BDS achieve its objectives— which are freedom, justice, and equality.

Read More

A Global Call to Boycott Netflix Over Supporting Israel

Companies Supporting Israel in Gaza War Face Boycott Calls

Most Read