Last week saw much gnashing of clothes and rending of teeth over the fact that Nike (which is not a World Cup sponsor) is outdoing Adidas (which is) in Twitter mentions, blog references and a few other social media metrics.

Nike isn’t alone. Coke is beating out sponsor Pepsi in level of assocation with the World Cup, and Visa is knocking the stuffing out of sponsor MasterCard.

This is sometimes called ambush marketing: a company that isn’t sponsoring an event takes the initiative to somehow associate itself with it anyway.

And if you believe folks like FIFA or the International Olympic Committee, it’s basically theft: stealing the goodwill around an event, bought and paid for by others, and taking it for your own.

But is that really what’s happening here?

One key implication of that argument is that an organization like FIFA or the IOC can sell – not just the right to put their logo on your brand’s packaging, or to describe your company as an official sponsor – but something much bigger.

They are, in a very real way, claiming the right to sell the conversation around their event. You want your business to participate in that conversation? Fork over a big chunk of cash or find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit (or at least a C & D letter).

And implicit in that claim is the idea that the conversation is theirs to sell in the first place.

But if the past decade of revolution in the social web and networked conversation has taught us anything, it’s that you don’t – can’t – and, indeed, mustn’t – own that conversation. Your users, members, customers, audience – whatever you want to call them – they own the conversation.

If they want to have that conversation with the event convenors and sponsors, wonderful. But the more mind-share an event has managed to gain, the better the chances the audience will also want to have that conversation with others, and that includes competing brands and businesses.

(By the way, I’m not talking about things like sneaking a logo into an event, or using misleading language to imply a sponsorship. I’m talking about the broader conversation that goes on when an event looms large in the public mind, and a business or organization joins that conversation.)

It opens a big hole in the traditional event-sponsorship business model. So how to adapt?

By doing pretty much exactly the opposite of what event governing bodies have generally done in the past, which was to clamp down and try to assert more control.

Organizations that gripe about others riding their conversational coattails need to become better – a lot better – at conversation themselves. Maybe that’s by creating content that’s worth talking about. And maybe it’s by becoming more open, transparent and willing to engage.

There’s some good conversational advice in the adage “If you want to be interesting, be interested”. A lot of the organizations complaining the loudest about “ambush” marketing haven’t seemed terribly interested in what their audiences have had to say. And that has to change.

In other words, bringing the most expensive cheese ball to the party doesn’t mean everyone there has to talk to you and only you. But it can be a great conversation opener… if you’re the social type.