When the U.S. Justice Department released a May 27 statement stating that Officials at FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, engaged in a “24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer,” the news had all the makings of an earth-shattering public relations disaster—not just for FIFA, but also for its sponsors. Whether the scandal is tied to an individual athlete—Tiger Woods or Lance Armstrong, anyone?—or to a sports association or league, sponsors face one immediate decision: stand pat and wait for the scandal to subside, or pull their chips from the table?

The FIFA scandal is especially vexing for sponsors given the enormity of the dollars at stake. In just the four years leading up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, FIFA raked in a mind-blowing $5.72 billion in sponsorship deals and media rights. FIFA’s top-tier sponsors—a list that includes such global players as Adidas, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Visa—pay between $24 million and $44 million annually in sponsorship fees. Most sponsors have also signed lengthy multi-year deals; Adidas, for example, recently renewed its sponsorship deal until 2030, while Visa’s agreement runs until 2022. Those deals are now in jeopardy, with Visa issuing an ominous statement reserving the right to reassess its sponsorship unless FIFA rebuilds “a culture with strong ethical practices.”

FIFA isn’t the first sports entity to find itself in hot water, nor will it be the last. If you’re leveraging sports sponsorships to reach some portion of the 98.5 million U.S. adults who watch professional sports live or on television, how can you properly frame your response to erupting scandal to reassure your customers? Should you issue a statement and stand back, or should you fashion a more aggressive response?

Here’s a clue: When we examined this audience in detail, we discovered that sports fans over-index on brand affinity and trustworthiness as a key purchase drivers. Of this audience:

  • Sports fans over-index on the importance of “Brand” as the top purchase driver for this audience, with 37% citing it as their primary influence on purchases. In contrast, they under-index on price as a purchase driver.
  • Under the attribute of “Corporate responsibility,” sports fans over-index on the value “honest and trustworthy,” with 56% citing it as a top purchase driver.
  • When we looked at the purchase drivers for specific product categories, we found that sports fans over-index for “trustworthiness” as a purchase driver for every product category we examined. In the travel category, for example, sports fans are 28% more likely than the general population to value “trustworthiness” as a purchase driver.

Trustworthiness Ranked #1 as the Most Important Product Attribute
While some scandals may leave you no choice but to withdraw from sponsorship, international soccer represents such a lucrative audience that FIFA sponsors are unlikely to disengage. The importance of brand and trustworthiness to this audience, however, means that sponsors who simply issue a statement to distance themselves from the scandal may be missing an opportunity to reinforce relationship value with their customers. Consider instead a proactive response with messages that reinforce the trust your customers have placed in you. Consumers are loyal to companies that live up to their brand promise—and sports fans understand loyalty better than anyone.