A Word From Our Sponsors

By on Sep 15, 2008 in Finance, Latest | 7 comments

The collapse of the holiday firm XL has had a significant effect on tens of thousands of tourists that found themselves stranded without anywhere to go on holiday, and it also caused an unusual sight on Saturday evening’s “Match Of The Day”. XL were the shirt sponsors of West Ham United, and the sudden non-existence of the company meant that West Ham took the field for their match with no sponsor’s name on their shirts. With serendipitous timing, West Ham’s opponents were West Bromwich Albion, who have themselves been unable to secure themselves a satisfactory shirt sponsorship deal since the start of the season. The result was a match that had, at least in some respects, not been seen since the early 1980s.

Shirt sponsorship first became an issue in the mid-1970s when Southern League club Kettering Town, under the tutelage of the former Wolves midfielder Kenny Hibbitt, took the field in new shirts sponsored by “Kettering Tyres”. When the FA barred the club from wearing them, they shortened the words to read “Kettering T”, claiming, somewhat disingenuously, that it merely now said “Kettering Town”. It took another eight years before this innovation began to filter through to the top divisions. Sponsorship was finally formally allowed on shirts from 1983, limited to sixteen square inches, with lettering no bigger than two inches high if the match was to be televised. It seems difficult to imagine any authorities taking such an anti-commercial attitude in this day and age.

Nowadays, everyone has shirt sponsorship. Even down at Sunday League level, one of the first jobs that a new club has is to secure a local company to throw them a couple of hundred pounds to have their name on the front of their shirts. Never mind the fact that said sponsorship will only be seen by thirty-odd players, a referee and a handful of supporters and friends. It never even gets questioned. There are exceptions to this rule, but one suspects that even these are starting to fall. Barcelona famously considered their shirts to be sacrosanct and allowed no advertising upon them but, from last season, paid the charity UNICEF to carry their logo. Some cynics have observed that this may be a precursor to a sponsorship deal, softening their supporters up for a commercial agreement in a few years’ time. More recently still, Aston Villa gave up their shirt sponsorship to a local charity for no financial recompense.

By and large, however, a lack of sponsorship is now regarded as a failure on the part of the club. When Charlton Athletic’s sponsors, AllSports, went into liquidation in 2005, the race was on for the club to secure a new brand to slap across the front of their shirts, and a new company, Llanera, stepped quickly into the fold. In the newly commercial world of English football, the benefits to sponsors are greater than ever. Increased sales of replica shirts mean that you’re likely to see the name of a company beaming out at you several times a day, even if you don’t switch the television on at all. This laissez faire attitude can cause problems abroad. France has barred all shirt sponsorship by all producers of alcoholic drinks, meaning that English clubs have had to block out the sponsors names when they’ve visited there. Stranger still, Arsenal once had to change the “Sega” logos on their shirts for a visit to Italy because “sega” is Italian slang for, umm, “masturbate”.

The last bastions of sponsor-free football shirts are the international nations, for whom shirt sponsorship is still banned. How long will it be, however, before this ban is lifted. The FA could pay a sizeable proportion of the cost of building Wembley stadium if they could get permission to get a sponsor’s name plastered across one of the most recognisable football “brands” in the world. West Ham United wil probably secure new sponsors in the next couple of weeks or so, and it’s likely that West Bromwich Albion will follow suit. Its a shame, however, if not a surprise, that such a situation is seen as an oversight on the part of all concerned than an opportunity to cleanse just a tiny bit of the monetarism out of the modern game. Ironically, they could be joined by the daddies of commercialisation of the modern game. Manchester United signed their sponsorship deal with AIG in 2006 for £56m, but the insurance company have run into serious financial difficulties and are rumoured to be in desperate need of fresh financial investment. Such irony would be entirely apposite.

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    7 Comments

  1. I don’t think that Barca fans would allow it. It would certainly make the iconic FCB badge look a little tawdry, especially after having an international charity emblazoned on the shirts for a year or two.

    Jerseys (yes, we’re talking about North America now) in Canada and the US have remained sponsor-free in all the major pro leagues: football, baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer. If there’s a league that is more crassly commercial than the NFL, I haven’t seen it, yet their jerseys remain sponsor-free. I’m not sure why, and it can’t be because we think our club brands are more sacrosanct than UK football clubs’.

    Brenton

    September 15, 2008

  2. It is a bit ironic that the NFL jersey’s remain sponsor free seeing how US sports seem to lead the way in commercialisation. Americans still see the jersey as the ultimate representation of the team so it remains off limits. Plus, from a practical standpoint, in the NFL, the numbers on the front and back of the jersey might take away some of the best advertising real estate.

    Brenton, MLS jersey’s are sponsored. The owners in that league were very willing to follow the European model in that regard. The Galaxy are sponsored by Herbalife and Real Salt Lake by Xango just to name two off the top of my head.

    Matt

    September 15, 2008

  3. One point about the American jerseys that makes them different is that, in baseball and American football at least, the entire league’s jerseys are manufactured by the same company – Reebok make the NFL jerseys and Majestic make MLB’s. In this respect, the shirts are sponsored, as the companies are able to advertise that they are the exclusive producers of a league’s jerseys. The kit manufacturers have their logos on every single jersey you see in the league. By signing a contract with an exclusive kit supplier, the leagues themselves are surely selling a sort of sponsorship which all the teams must comply with.

    Daniel

    September 15, 2008

  4. The signing of a ‘league sponsorship shirt deal’ may be happening in England soon. Koolsport who sponsor the NCEL league tried to be sole manufacturers for all kits in the 40 (approx) team league. This did not happen last year due to the late announcement of the sponsorship deal and the fact some clubs had already done deals. But watch this space for next season.

    Dan

    September 16, 2008

  5. Barca’s socios did actually vote to allow shirt sponsorship back in 2003 when the club was in dire financial straits, but I don’t think it would be tolerated now. The UNICEF deal is now in its third year and in my opinion it should be continued – why mess with a good thing?

    Another club who have historically not allowed their shirts to be sullied with a sponsor is Athletic Bilbao, one of three Spanish clubs to have never been relegated (take a wild guess who the other two are). To avoid a historic relegation, however (Athletic are a bit short of funds, and they have that all-Basque policy to worry about) they have a shirt sponsor this season for the first time – a local oil refinery.

    Linda

    September 17, 2008

  6. Interestingly enough, major league baseball has allowed its teams to wear small sponsor logos on their uniform sleeves and batting helmets in regular season games played in Japan. It is as if they believe that what happens in Tokyo stays in Tokyo.

    During the 90s, the French league signed an exclusive deal with adidas to have them supply kits for all of the clubs in their top flight, only to abandon the idea in the wake of initially successful legal challenges from non-adidas contracted clubs based on restraint of trade/freedom of contract/competition grounds. Given the amounts at stake in the Premier League, a similar challenge would be inevitable were it tried in England.

    I happen to be a Barca socio and I agree that in the current climate, the membership would not support a commercial sponsor. There is, however, something to the argument that the unicef deal (which has been a PR bonanza for the club) has in fact de-sensitised the support to the concept of leaving the front of the shirt blank (one also needs to keep in mind the Nike logo and the Antenna 3 ad on the sleeve). Were the club’s finances to go into the tank, I can see the membership looking very seriously at a particular lucrative offer from a commercial sponsor.

    One last point. Not only did Allsports go bust while they were sponsoring Charlton, so did Llanera. In fact, the recent economic record of Premier League sponsors has been rather poor: Llanera, Northern Rock, XL and now AIG. Those clubs who aren’t sponsored by “recession proof” firms like gambling companies and breweries should be looking at their sponsors with a bit more jaundiced eye than they were 12 months ago. Interestingly enough, North America experienced the same phenomenon several years ago with regard to stadium naming rights (an area where they are considerably “ahead” of England in terms of sponsorship). At one point, close to half of the firms that had paid large sums for naming rights had either gone bust or been merged out of existence. To pick just one example, the Houston Astros were stuck with a brand shiny new ballpark that had an Enron logo built into every one of its 45,000+ seat rests.

    ursus arctos

    September 17, 2008

  7. I did laugh during the england vs croatia game that the medical cart had got advertising on the roof.

    stu

    September 17, 2008

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