In 1984, I was discussing European club football with a work colleague. As fans of Kingstonian and pre-Simod Cup Reading, we were not best-placed technically for such a discussion. But we quickly agreed that combining “English” workrate with “continental” skill would be some sort of footballing nirvana. English clubs had just won six European Cups out of seven. But if Graeme Souness could add Michel Platini’s skill to his “qualities,” how much better would the spectacle be? (Adding style to Trevor Senior was, admittedly, another matter).
Seems we were wrong. The key was “brand value.” At least that’s what Brand Finance (BF), “the world’s leading independent valuation and strategy consultancy,” believe, in order to justify their just-published report into the “world’s most valuable football brands,” complete with Premier League-dominated Top 50. “Brand value” is over-reliant on ludicrous EPL broadcast deals. Many Celtic followers joyfully contrasted their rise up this table, from 38 to 34, with current battles at Rangers. “Brand value above Roma,” tweeted BBC Scotland’s business and economy editor Douglas Fraser. But Fraser put that into shuddering context by adding: “below Stoke and Swansea.”
For two such dictionary definitions of “mid-table respectability” to feature so highly shows what little part actual football plays in this concept. Newcastle were TWENTY-SECOND ferrchrissakes. And the stats include 2015/16. Mike Ashley might feel exonerated. Newcastle fans might feel different. BF annually reports on global brand values ranging from banks to entire nations. The “Football 50” foreword by CEO David Haigh (no, not THAT one…come back Leeds fans) notes that they work with “football clubs and other sports franchises…”, defining brand as “the focus for all the expectations and opinions held by fans, players, staff and other stakeholders about a club.”
But, sensing that this isn’t nearly psychobabbly enough for their concept, they suggest a “more technical definition”: “A marketing-related intangible asset including…names, terms, signs, symbols, logos and designs, or a combination of these, intended to identify goods, services or entities, or a combination of these, creating distinctive images and associations in the minds of stakeholders, thereby generating economic benefits/value.” BF’s “valuation process” uses the “Royalty Relief approach,” which sounds like a rule variant for the “Mornington Crescent” game on BBC Radio’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. “On-pitch success” features in the valuation but only as part of “brand equity,” battling for importance alongside “marketing investment” and “brand management.”
The “Brand Strength Index” (BSI), by which a brand’s strength is determined, “covers three broad topics of brand investment, equity in the form of emotional connection harboured by a brand, and bottom line commercial performance.” And the “Royalty Rate” calculation (what an “owner would have to pay for the use of the brand if it were not already owned”)? Easy: “The (BSI) score is applied to the royalty rate range to arrive at a royalty rate. For example, if the royalty rate range in a brand’s sector is 0-5% and a brand has a brand strength score of 80 out of 100, then an appropriate royalty rate for the use of this brand in the given sector will be 4%.”
As someone who struggled to calculate goal average as a kid, this might as well be written in ancient Swahili. Nowadays, I’m willing to concede that “brand equity drivers” and “maximising core identities” make sense to someone somewhere and might even provide some tangible benefits. And football fans, being partisan and highly competitive, will want to know the final league table, whether or not we understand why and whether a higher place matters. Newcastle’s 22nd-place will mean FA to their fans. Nonetheless, I’m sure some were quietly delighted that Sunderland were 29th. (BTW: Arsenal seventh, Tottenham tenth. Liverpool eighth, Everton fifteenth. Manchester United first, City fourth…and Stoke 28th, Port Vale nowhere.)
Manchester United fans may, though, be puzzled by topping this table after post-Ferguson traumas, United regaining top spot from Bayern Munich after coming third last year and becoming the “first billion-dollar football brand…despite another season without silverware.” BF part-credit “the Glazers’ commercial strategy”, understating that it was “not always popular with fans.” However, “the most critical success factor” in this “renewed financial potency” was “this year’s record-breaking £5.1bn deal for the UK broadcast rights of the Premier League.” Indeed, “the deal has been a boon to all Premier League clubs, which have surged up the rankings.” For example, Leicester City “were seemingly destined for relegation and obscurity” (BF obviously not impressed by the Football League’s “brand”). But “despite a lack of a global profile,” their “brand value” was “over $100m” and they “entered the rankings at 42nd”, five places above Europa League winners Sevilla.
Even Champions League success cannot match such influence. Bayern Munich suffered because, judging by the size of broadcast rights deals, “the Bundesliga simply does not excite international audiences in the same way” as the “Premier League, La Liga and even Serie A.” And treble-winning Barcelona have “become the most powerful football club brand,” yet have “simply…not been able to harness (their) brand to the same extent as either Real or the rapidly growing English teams. Man City and Chelsea have both overtaken it.” Which will have eased City fans’ pain at more Champions League mediocrity and taking just one point out of six from Burnley.
This distinction between brand “strength” and “value” isn’t immediately clear from the report. However, summaries of recent progress by Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus suggest that increased brand value comes from brand strength’s success in attracting external wealth. PSG’s “rapid” brand value rise since 2013 is due entirely to Qatari money. However, “its brand value (will reach) a plateau” unless PSG “show rival clubs a little fraternité in order to revive the fortunes of and international interest in Ligue 1.” The good news for Juventus is that “the sale of a 48% stake in AC Milan to Thai businessman Bee Taechaubol suggests that global audiences and investors are beginning to see Serie A clubs as prospects that cannot be ignored.”
This hints at what both underpins and undermines the report. It becomes clear from its interviews and features that the building of any significant brand value needs stacks of money in the first place, particularly the “in-depth look” at Asian Champions League winners Al Ain from the United Arab Emirates, co-incidentally (cough) “the first club in Asia to undergo our brand valuation.” References to actual football are few and far between. No players are mentioned. Only Asamoah Gyan and Omar Abdulrahman are pictured. And many at BF would surely claim Omar was a star of the UAE’s recent run to the AFC Asian Cup semi-finals as much for his hair “brand” as his sweet left foot. Meanwhile, Al Ain’s domestic success is being “increasingly secured” by its “new brand positioning and string of powerful partnerships” (sponsors are “partners” in brand lexicon). And their “much bigger” challenge on “the international stage” is being aided by “European clubs’ vast experience.” In coaching? Fitness? Heavens, no. “In developing their respective brands.”
The “Football in the Middle East” feature places natural, if untimely, emphasis on Qatar’s role in “intensifying” the “Arabian Gulf states’ changing relationship with world football,” while lauding the idea that “football is an ideal vehicle to publicise and promote their nation brands.” And the report is up-to-date, as its tragi-comic section, Sponsorship: Foul Play at Fifa, references the recent Zurich arrests, adding that “accusations of endemic corruption within Fifa are becoming not just widespread but impossible to ignore”, as if they’ve been possible to ignore until now. In fairness to Haigh, he echoes Fifa’s bigger critics: “Without a thorough clean-out my recommendation to the likes of VISA, Coca-Cola and McDonalds would be to move towards the exit.” But in “BF-world” the worst thing to emerge from what they would probably “brand” the “developing Fifa/FBI partnership” is Fifa’s brand value collapsing “to $2.8bn, having lost $400m in the last few days alone as the result of the arrests and subsequent negative attention.”
There is also an interview with Alison Canning of City Football Group (CFG), whose job title “Brand Guardian” dismantled my interest in anything she may have had to say about “unified return on investment metrics.” CFG, of which Manchester City themselves are (reduced to?) “the flagship brand,” is an “international, multi-club structure…(which)…allows the City brand to be leveraged across the globe whilst simultaneously benefiting from synergies through association with its regional partners.” Frank Lampard’s controversial “inter-CFG” moves have single-handedly raised CFG “brand awareness” in the UK. And cynics have spotted the accounting, ahem, opportunities provided by such a network, which also includes Melbourne City and Yokohama J-Mariners. But cynicism comes easily after Canning sweeps through concepts such as the “CFG Brand Book,” the “Central Brand Library,” “halo effect assessment,” “co-creating experiences” and the “Aura logo,” the “shared identity” of the “group companies.”
I know I could reasonably be branded a “luddite,” by “branding” so much of this report as jargon-heavy to the point of head explosion. However, there are little gems amid the carnage. Budweiser’s FA Cup sponsorship was “activated” to “engage target audiences to develop,” wait for this, “a genuine emotional connection.” With Budweiser. However, this preposterous beneath-parody notion was crushed by “UK drinkers who stick loyally to more established European brands” (Carlsberg?) “or reject mass-market lagers in favour of craft beer and real ale.” CAMRA, take a bow. Meanwhile, Wonga’s Newcastle shirt deal “certainly achieved greater awareness as a result of the deal. Unfortunately it merely served to enhance the firm’s notoriety and reputation for profiting from the unfortunate and financially illiterate.”
BF also state that Arsenal’s “squad is now arguably the best in the league and undoubtedly has the potential to win any and every trophy next year.” I’d like to watch, from a safe place, when Arsene Wenger sees that…or when Jose Mourinho does. Some of the report is disturbing, though. Roman Abramovich fails to feature in Chelsea’s year, an oversight for just over a billion reasons. The report references protests when “Manchester United dropped ‘Football Club’ from their logo” but adds: “Most fans have no doubt forgotten it was ever there…(and)…If not they must surely now be able to see the benefit of making ‘Manchester United’ more prominent on the design.” No evidence is offered for this patronising, insulting nonsense.
Naturally, BF suggests that Hull City owner Assem Allam’s plan to add “Tigers” to the club’s name was “arguably a sound theory” that “would simply strengthen that identity and serve to differentiate the brand.” But Hull were “already nicknamed the Tigers, featured a Tiger on the club crest and played in orange and black.” And again, no evidence is offered for how Allam’s plan would “differentiate” anything. Worse, the report implicates fan disaffection in Hull’s relegation, asking: “When the difference between relegation can be as little as a single point, is it too much to suggest that a more unified club might have produced better performances and avoided the drop?” Yes, it is. Sod off.
In 1995, football visionary…er…Andy Hamilton wrote a Channel 4 TV film Eleven Men Against Eleven (the “Hamilton as visionary” theory is proven by the film’s star player being “Leo Walcott”). Chairman Sir Bob Luckton (Timothy West, brilliant as per) said his club “has to be big because soon that’s the only type of club there’ll be.” And if “brand value” is as important as it appears in Brand Finance’s world, “Sir Bob” could soon be right.
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