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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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