Once upon a time, sponsors were seen as a welcome part of a club's identity. Liverpool fans redecorated their kitchens in Crown Paints, installed a Candy washing machine before sitting down to a crate of Carlsberg.
Now sponsors can be like wallpaper. They're there, but largely in the background. The wide plethora of brands as sponsors has been replaced by a wash of bookmakers. As football in this country returns to action, it's time to rethink the role that sponsors can play, for the sake of fans and clubs alike.
Of course, the Liverpool example is a crude over-simplification. But what it does illustrate is the change in attitude and landscape. When shirt sponsorship was new, there was a novelty factor. We weren’t bombarded with marketing messages from companies. Social media wasn’t a thing. Televised football was still limited to a handful of games. A smart-phone was one that had a redial button.
The landscape has changed but sponsorships largely haven't
But in amongst all of this change, many clubs have still sold their sponsorships in the same old way. Centred around placing a logo on the shirt. In 2017, this extended to the sleeves, as the Premier League agreed to let clubs place advertising here. Football is, or at least was, before COVID19 bigger business than ever.
The dominance of the bookmaker advertising
So why haven’t things changed much during this time? One reason is that it hasn't needed to. There has been enough demand to meet the supply. Bookmakers have played a large role in this, especially outside of the Top 6. The relaxation of regulation around bookie-advertising in the mid-noughties meant an explosion of brands that wanted to get in front of fans. Shirt sponsorship was an easy way to do this. Bookies essentially filled the void in many sports that was left by cigarettes. Whilst very few football clubs around the world had cigarette sponsors, these companies were used to sponsoring other sporting events in the UK from cricket to snooker. The same ‘land-grab’ model was applied to bookmakers. If I sponsor one team, then it’ll stop a competitor from getting that space.
The other thing you might have noticed is that the sponsor's presence is not limited to the English language. Chinese brands in particular have become more and more prominent. Football and gambling are both hugely popular in China. As the game grows globally, it’s to be expected that the clubs chase the world’s largest economy. What’s more, it has been suggested that partnering with Premier League clubs has worked for companies trying to crack China.
So, why should clubs change? Well, the reliance on bookies is a dangerous one. Half of the Premier League shirt sponsors are gambling brands. This is even higher in the Championship, raising to 17 out of 24. Pressure from lobbyists has been rising for a while to clamp down on restrictions and the latest research shows that the British public support more regulation for online gambling. The FA faced huge criticism after the details of a deal with Bet365 allowing the company to stream the FA Cup on their platforms were exposed. On top of all of this, the bookmakers have been hit hard financially by COVID19, no sport means no sportsbook to gamble on. When there is a reliance on one backer, things can go wrong very quickly. Remember ITV Digital?
What clubs are facing now is, to use the most overused word of the decade, unprecedented. Even a financial disaster like the ITV Digital saga, or the global financial crisis are no real guidelines for football clubs. During those times, they still had gate receipts. For the last three months, that hasn’t been the case and we don’t know when it will be again. Clubs need to box clever now more than ever, faced with empty stadia and an uncertain economy. No self-respecting sponsor is going to fork out their marketing budget on a vanity exercise. They’ll need to know that what they’re doing is going to produce results. Something that has always been hard to do in sponsorship.
Reasons for optimism?
Are there reasons for hope? Yes. Throughout the coronavirus crisis, clubs across the world and of all different sizes have shown some great creativity in generating revenue. From cardboard cut-out fans to drive through screenings of matches, commercial teams have thought up novel and imaginative ways to keep the clubs going. Applying this kind of thinking to sponsorship and moving away from the logo placement method will help clubs to future proof themselves and attract a more diverse array of would be suitors.
Another reason to be optimistic is the continued influence of athlete media. From Michael Jordan to Marcus Rashford, athletes are building platforms that can genuinely affect change. It would be easy to see this as a threat and think that marketeers are more likely to spend their budgets with athletes. But another way of looking at it is that growing popularity in this field is something that clubs can benefit from. Learn from the way they tell stories and make your sponsorship campaigns more about compelling content than sticking a logo on a shirt.