The Ethics of Soccer Sponsorship

Posted by on Sep 27, 2012 in Uncategorized | 12 Comments
The Ethics of Soccer Sponsorship

Feeling queasy at the increased commercialisation of football is an experience common to us all, but a definite ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ mood has prevailed in recent years. Indeed, sponsorship has become yet another facet of the game to get nostalgic about – a marvellous post at the Football Attic recently confirmed the fact that certain advertisers seem to ‘suit’ certain clubs. Hence, JVC will always be associated with Arsenal and a Liverpool shirt minus the legend ‘Crown Paints’ simply isn’t kosher.

So we’re comfortable with an arrangement that started when Derek Dougan emblazoned Kettering Town’s shirts with the local tyre company’s name. Hitachi soon followed at Liverpool, albeit not when the TV cameras were rolling; while subsequently, Coventry decided to incorporate Talbot’s massive T into the very design of their sky blue uniform and Scarborough proclaimed the decadent merits of Black Death vodka.

That Albert Adomah’s kit was financed out of the pocket of John Motson is one of the homelier tales of the whole narrative, but uneasiness nevertheless remains in spite of such normalization. Football does impose limits and we are yet to experience the excesses of US sport – “Tonight’s match is brought to you by Subway Teriyaki chicken sub…Good…so you don’t always have to be” – nor, surprisingly of supposedly more rarefied pursuits such as cricket, rugby and snooker – logos on playing surfaces are rare while shirt collars and lapels are still for the most part brand free.

That is evidence that we see the corporate world as a necessary evil and yet essential the sales executives and product managers certainly are. The magnitude of many sponsorship deals in the current era often means the difference between survival or not and the recently brokered television deal that saw Sky and British Telecom cough up £2.3 billion to screen Premier League football from 2013-14 is only the most spectacular figure in a litany of silk purse disbursements.

The estimable Swiss Ramble has been persistent in underlining the huge importance of these Mad Men. In 2011, Manchester City extended their deal with existing shirt sponsor Etihad Airways to a 10-year one rumoured to be worth up to a frankly ridiculous £400 million – ever wondered where the money to buy Carlos Tevez came from? Well now you know.

Elsewhere, Arsenal’s deal with another Middle Eastern airline, Emirates amounted to a not too shabby £90 million, covering stadium naming rights for 15 years and shirt sponsorship to 2014. Meanwhile, Liverpool were able to afford Andy Carroll thanks to a £20 million a season agreement with Standard & Chartered while their fierce rivals Manchester United enjoyed similar terms from Aon. Despite a lone Champions League season, Spurs also earn a mint – with Auresma forking out £12.5 million to see their name displayed prominently on the streets of Edmonton and Tottenham Hale (no, I don’t know what Auresma do either) but perhaps the most preposterous terms of all saw the aforementioned Red Devils receive £40 million from DHL to fund their training kit.

And yet, amid this relatively straightforward bartering, calculated purely to maximise earnings, some clubs have appeared to take a more enlightened approach. In the 1980s, West Bromwich Albion proudly sported the No Smoking symbol while West Midlands neighbours Aston Villa went into partnership with the Acorns children’s hospice. Indeed, to foster publicity with local businesses would seem to me to be what sponsorship should really be about – I always enjoyed the fact that Leeds United’s early nineties team advertised local rag the Yorkshire Evening Post.

Of course some parties are even more unblemished – for years, the blaugrana jerseys of Barcelona came minus any embellishment at all while the likes of West Ham, West Brom and Blackburn have in recent times followed suit, although there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Barcelona’s £24 million a year tie in with the admittedly not for profit Qatar Foundation disappointed the purists and the English trio’s apparent refusal to corporatize their image actually had more to do with an inability to attract endorsement than anything else – one wag suggested that Venky’s are too embarrassed for even their name to appear across the blue and white halves, at one point ceding ground to the Prince’s Trust. There are heart warming stories such as Southampton fans’ refusal to countenance the possibility of the ‘Friend’s Provident Stadium’ but most would consider a failure to cash in as plain negligence.

But common garden as sponsorship would now seem to be, there is unquestionably a darker side. True, the rumours that Nike insisted on Ronaldo starting for Brazil in the 1998 World Cup Final are perhaps up there with those positing George W. Bush’s personal involvement in planning 9-11 and Bob Marley’s assassination by the CIA, but tawdry tales nevertheless abound.

Rangers and Celtic for many years now have shared the same sponsor, simply because to differ would lead to zero sales in certain quarters of Glasgow – but you don’t have to have an account with Northern Rock to become apoplectic at the sight of the bank’s name across the shirts of Newcastle United. Given that the company was afforded a ‘liquid support facility’ approaching a figure of £100 billion by 2008, funded out of the national purse, opposing fans (as well as enlightened Newcastle ones) will perhaps wonder if that’s a good use of taxpayers’ money. For the record, the whole shebang is now owned by the Virgin Group.

More alarming still has been the tendency of sponsorship to exploit a loophole in the forthcoming Financial Fair Play regulations devised by UEFA. That £400 million Eastlands deal has been described as financial doping in some quarters – the negotiation of an artificially high price designed to increase the English Champions’ value and allowing them a fighting chance of breaking even within the required three years despite all the investment in player fees and wages.

In David Foster Wallace’s majestic novel Infinite Jest, we are treated to a vision of a dystopian future where each year is subsidized by a particular corporate partner – so we have “The Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-To-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, Or Mobile” and if such excesses may seem part of life’s rich pageant, the apparent harmlessness of corporate involvement is all very well as long as boundaries are kept to. I enjoy reminiscing about the Kentucky Fried Chicken League of Ireland as much as the next person, but City’s deal for one raises troubling ethical questions.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham (pen name: Lanterne Rouge) is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 47 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Football Attic, The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.

12 Comments

  1. Ben
    September 27, 2012

    I guess I probably don’t count as an ‘enlightened’ Newcastle fan, given that I don’t necessarily see Northern Rock continuing to sponsor us after entering financial troubles as wrong (though admittedly I wasn’t particularly comfortable with it). The company argued that continuing the deal was the best way to generate some positive PR and brand awareness – though admittedly existing account-holders and shareholders might have felt differently. There was an immense amount of goodwill towards Northern Rock in the north-east, and pulling the plug on a deal with the region’s main football team could have been more damaging than beneficial.

    As a general point, the sponsorship of Man Utd’s training kit doesn’t seem that odd when you consider that match balls are sponsored at all levels, and I’ve even come across sponsored periods of extra time…

    Barcelona previously supported Unicef, another charitable organisation, but it’s worth pointing out that they’re in a position to be charitable – it’s not something the vast majority of clubs can afford.

    It irritates me to see the likes of the Sun suddenly interested in sponsoring the shirts of lower league football teams when they land televised FA Cup matches against the big boys – but I suppose it’s to be expected and the clubs can’t be faulted for maximising the opportunity to make hay while the sun shines. What’s more egregious is Budweiser’s sponsorship of Wembley FC, a manipulative marketing exercise which has involved parachuting in Terry Venables, David Seaman, Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Claudio Cannigia, Brian McBride and Graeme Le Saux with scant regard for the incumbent manager or squad. Hopefully they’ll be knocked out at the earliest opportunity.

    Reply
  2. mancunian mike
    September 27, 2012

    Interesting article, only let down (again) by an author picking out Man City’s ‘frankly ridiculous’ £400M sponsorship deal. In fact if you had researched the deal, or even simply read Swiss Ramble’s article about it, you may have realised that it isn’t ridiculous at all, nor will UEFA have a leg to stand on if they try and discount it. The Etihad deal is for shirt sponsorship, stadium naming, and sponsorship of the (under-development) training, youth and media complex; all for £40M a season. United and Liverpool earn over £50M a season from shirts sponsorship and kit supply , Utd an extra £10M a season from ‘training kits’; Arsenal earn £6M a season from a stadium naming deal they signed in 2004, and nobody has an equivalent ‘training complex’ to judge City against. As such City have merely increased their earnings from sponsorship to nearer that of their rivals; and I for one will not be surprised when it is renegotiated upwards. You also mention the potential nepotism of City’s deal, yet fail to mention German football where teams such as Bayern Munich are sponsored by their sharholders, yes, Opel and Adidas actually own 10% each of Bayern Munich and are ‘coincidentally’ willing to pay large sponsorship deals…is that fair? Of course it is, because they aren’t Man City…rememeber, City didn’t break football, it was this way when we got here.

    Reply
  3. Lanterne Rouge
    September 27, 2012

    Some good points Mike and thanks for the clarification – my defence would be that there is so much conflicting evidence although no doubt David Conn’s new book on the Citizens should be required reading. I am with you to the extent that I have no time for anti-Man City jealousy. For instance, I don’t recall Arsenal or Manchester United ever feeling sorry for Hartlepool or Southend or Irthlingborough Diamonds and nor would they have agreed that Financial Fair Play should be introduced when they happened to be the richest clubs.

    No doubt though that even if the £400 million is for a myriad of different things and only in line with their rivals, it’s an obscene amount of money (albeit perhaps not enough for City to realise their Champions League ambitions) and not being as Bayern Munich isn’t really something to be proud of.

    Well said Ben about the tawdry involvement of major sponsors in the early rounds of the FA Cup – a really disappointing new phenomenon.

    Reply
  4. Gerschenkron
    September 27, 2012

    The idea that Man City’s global appeal might match that of their neighbours (or Liverpool for that matter) is pretty laughable. Maybe some day, but as things stand – the “Etihad deal” is indeed “frankly ridiculous”.

    Also, @Ben – impressed with your loyalty but Northern Rock wasn’t “entering financial troubles” it was nationalized before it collapsed. The idea that it’s anything other than “frankly ridiculous” that the UK taxpayer was sponsoring Newcastle United is pretty untenable. We’re not talking about a swimming pool or a library here but a Premier League football club which is in receipt of multi-million pound television revenue – most of which gets paid to a mixture of its players and directors.

    Reply
    • mancunian mike
      September 27, 2012

      Gerschenkron, I haven’t compared ‘City’s global appeal’ with Utd’s (or Liverpool’s) nor would I. Put simply if we estimate that the shirt sponsorship element of the Etihad deal is worth £20M a season, the stadium naming rights £10M and the complex a further £10M then it is less than half what Utd (or Liverpool) earn from shirts; which really means the only thing that is ‘frankly ridiculous’ is the insistance that the deal is somehow gross or over-inflated for the Champions of the most watched domestic league in the world. Rather than worry about the Etihad deal why don’t worry about your own anti-City bias and how it is affecting your ability to look at the facts before making comment.

      Reply
  5. The Ethics of Soccer Sponsorship « Scissors Kick
    September 27, 2012

    […] Arsenal and a Liverpool shirt minus the legend ‘Crown Paints’ simply isn’t kosher.” thetwounfortunates Share this:StumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

    Reply
  6. Row Z
    September 27, 2012

    What depresses me is the fact that the phenomenon of sponsor-named grounds has reached of all places the Evo-Stick Southern League South and West division

    https://rowzfootball.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/sholing-fc-now-playing-the-silverlake-arena/

    Reply
  7. Ben
    September 28, 2012

    OK, so what were Newcastle supposed to do in the circumstances? Throw their hands in the air, ignore all the budgets that were already in place and dependent upon sponsorship money, dismiss the fact that they were championing a local business (and employer of hundreds of local people) on their shirts and say ‘We can’t possibly take taxpayers’ money’? Get real. You can be idealistic about football (and I often am) but that’s simply not how the modern game operates. Northern Rock were acting in a way they felt made sound business sense, and the club was happy to accept the continuation of the deal. I can appreciate that you and others would find it offensive that Newcastle profited from taxpayers’ money, of course, but if anyone’s to blame for the situation, it’s the FSA for allowing it to happen.

    Reply
    • Gerschenkron
      October 10, 2012

      I think the Northern Rock thing is debatable, and I appreciate your points Ben. My perspective is that the taxpayer should not have been sponsoring Newcastle United but I appreciate that it wasn’t of NUFC’s doing that they were. Having said this, the latest developments with the club are more clear cut – Newcastle United are to be sponsored by the reprehensible outfit wonga.com which is a form of legalized loan sharking as far as I’m concerned. It’s clear that the North East has problems with significant numbers of people struggling to make ends meet each month – some of whom may get sucked into an abusive relationship with this financial organization thanks to its association with a trusted brand (sorry to use that term) such as Newcastle United. I’ve heard that some NUFC fans will boycott the stadium and suchlike as a result of this deal and I have a lot of sympathy with them.

      Reply
  8. Chris
    September 28, 2012

    I think there are three things that get people’s backs up about the city deal (well four if you include man united fans who think it should be illegal for city to be able to challenge them). One is that Etihad is owned by a close relative of city’s owner (possibly a brother i’m not sure) and as such is probably in breach of the FFP rules as it is technically investment from the owner via the back door.. No doubt an economics expert could work out exactly what a fair market price for city’s sponsorship would be. The second issue is not city’s fault, there is a misconception that the 400 million is only over FOUR years not 10, which would make it worth 100 million a year which would be grossly over inflated. as a ten year deal it is reasonable. The final thing is that the deal suddenly appeared when it was confirmed that the FFP rules were definately going to come into force so it just looked like city negotiated themselves what appeared to be a ludicrous sponsorship deal to get around the rules. That said given what their wage bill must be like fourty million a year won’t make too big a dent in it.

    Reply
    • mancunian mike
      September 28, 2012

      Hi Chris, it is true that the owner of Etihad is the half brother of the City owner but, as stated earlier, in Germany many clubs are sponsored by shareholders, for example Bayern recieve money from Opal and Adidas who each own stakes in the club; whilst in England it could be suggested that Liverpool’s record breaking Warrior Sports deal (£25M a season for kit manufacture) is dubious due to the long relationship of John Henry and the Boston based company’s owner Jim Davis, especially as Liverpool had been dropped by Adidas prior to the deal, and this doesn’t include the £25M a season Liverpool recieve from Standard Charter for shirt sponsorship; I have no comments on the other points which, as you point out, are merely due to timing and poor reporting of the facts, but as far as a ‘fair market price’ I think that’s exactly what City have got.

      Reply
  9. Sponsoring the Football League: A Short History | The Two Unfortunates
    May 29, 2013

    […] in it for them is a common query that springs to mind when assessing football sponsorship and indeed, since the financial crisis of 2008 kicked in, one might ask the question more forcibly? […]

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