Sponsoring the Football League: A Short History

Posted by on May 29, 2013 in Uncategorized | One Comment
Sponsoring the Football League: A Short History
Image available under Creative Commons (c) diamondgeyser

What’s 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? Why did Coca-Cola, for instance, feel that a wet Tuesday evening encounter between Crawley and Stevenage or a juddering tackle from Stephen Hunt would help them sell more bottles and cans of their precious elixir?

The list of companies that have felt compelled to put their name to the yearly machinations of the Football League is a varied one and still a relatively new concept, so how have each of the 7 companies fared during and since the deals were struck? — and how did football benefit from the relationship? — not so much financially, but in terms of profile and synergies? How, also do the firms shape up in terms of corporate social responsibility and the betterment of the greater good? Here’s a reminder of the septet:

Canon (1983-96)

Pre-Premier league of course and Canon are typical of those innovative, globally-inclined companies which help make up the very fabric of Japanese business.

I recall attending an early season match between Fulham and Leeds United in 1983 and my realization on purchasing a programme that things would never be the same again on seeing the company name emblazoned thereon. No longer was it simply The Football League in the same way that it’s still The Open Championship and The Old Kent Road.

Those were dog days for football of course, with hooliganism at its peak and attendances at an all-time low. One wonders, therefore, why such a reputable company became involved? Bailing out a year after Heysel and the European ban, even a famous double for Liverpool under Kenny Dalglish failed to boost the image of their myriad of products although the photocopiers were no doubt popular with the yuppy salarymen of the day. It was time for a downsize.

Today (1986-87)

Not a David Foster Wallace-style dystopian tie-in but the name of a long forgotten newspaper formed by quintessential Eighties mogul, Eddie Shah, this attempt to match the success of USA Today stateside ended up as a pale imitation of mid-range rags, The Daily Mail and Daily Express.

About the only notable feature was its colour printing, beginning a process which all newspapers were to be forced to follow suit,  it was editorially moribund and the relationship with the League did not survive the continuing poor publicity of a sport in turmoil, nor the acquisitive leanings of an Australian called Rupert Murdoch.

Limping on into the mid-nineties, its sports editor was future labour politician and profoundly unqualified general motormouth, the late Tony Banks, while ill-advised editorials upset the people of Liverpool, and Hugh Grant among others.

Barclays Bank (1987-1993)

Although an established business of long standing, Barclays was itself mired in controversy at the time the Football League came calling — but an overdue band wise decision to offload its interests in Apartheid era South Africa a year earlier did begin to gain currency with students and other right thinking people up and down the land.

Barclays perhaps deserve credit for instilling a level of stability — six years is a lengthy tenure in sponsorship terms and association with a perhaps boring, but reasonably dependable business will have stood the League in good stead as the game emerged from its fug — thanks to the fanzine movement, Nick Hornby, Michael Thomas, Gazza, the Stone Roses or whoever — depending on whom you speak to.

That dependability has since been under strain of course and Barclays has been embroiled in some of the low points of the current financial malaise including 276,315 customer complaints in the second half of 2010 alone, association with Lehman Brothers and the announcement of a net loss of £1.04 billion in 2012. Old certainties are dying hard.

Endsleigh Insurance (1993-1996)

Perhaps the dowdiest of the League’s benefactors, Endsleigh had assaulted me with literature on arrival at Manchester University six years before and continue to specialize in insuring the higher education market.

That they took over to the first salvoes of Alive and Kicking as the League lost 20 of its best clubs didn’t help and in an era which would later see ITV Digital came a cropper attempting to sell an embryonic concern; putting your name to a trophy which would see Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and Sunderland as top dogs as opposed to the usual Liverpool, Arsenal or Manchester United would always attract accusations of mickey mousedom.

Hence, the refrain, ‘Ossie’s on his way to Endsleigh’ rang out on Premier League terraces as Spurs struggled under their Argentine manager in the Premiership — but perhaps any publicity is good publicity and the Cheltenham based company remain in operation to its day — it’s hard not to make money out of insuring people against things that will never happen after all.

Nationwide (1996-2004)

One of those happy coincidences that see a sponsors’ name double up as an apt description, the set up saw no transition to include Scottish clubs but did nonetheless enjoy a broader geographical spread than the top flight ever has or will do.

Indeed, the era saw the building society thrive and by the time its association with the Football League ended, it had overtaken Barclays to become the UK’s fourth biggest mortgage lender. Wider economics prosperity helped of course and the period also saw the board of directors stave off carpetbagging attempts to convert the concern into a bank.

Slightly stolid and slightly boring they may have been, but for the first time, the competition came often to be known solely by the name of the sponsors’ — i.e. ‘The Nationwide’ while money bags promotees including Fulham, Newcastle United, Manchester City and, errr, Portsmouth increased the profile of Division 1 by attracting players with bigger wages than many EPL sides could afford.

Coca-Cola (2004-2010)

Do you know the way to Aston Villa?
Man United, Middlesbrough
Say Goodbye to Coca Cola
Premier League, it waits for me

So rang out the refrain as Steve Coppell’s Reading side amassed a still unbeaten 106 points in 2006 – to the tune of the then ubiquitous and quickly rather nauseating Amarillo. Not that Coca-Cola were bothered, mind — there will have been executives of the Atlanta based giants who will have been wholly unaware of any relationship with the English equivalent of minor league baseball and that these purveyors of the murky brown stuff decided to confer their financial blessing on an organisation whose prime assets included Chris Morgan and Mike Newell remains faintly baffling.

It was, however, a sign of the additional profile that might be gained from association with the fifth most watched football competition in Europe.

npower (2010-2013)

Where DO they get their energy from? And indeed, going all the way back to 1990 and Peter Purves striding out into an empty stadium during World Cup half-time breaks, Big Energy has been inclined to become involved with the round ball.

The owners of the now defunct Didcot Power Station (there is a Football League banner on the Colditz-style fences surrounding the complex) are something of a juggernaut — unsurprisingly given how controversial the divvying up of natural resources which were formerly part of a nationalized system has been.

If npower rose to prominence in a less dubious way than the Russian confreres Gazprom (now Champions League sponsors) among others, their part responsibility for the ravages of climate change coupled with allegations of tax avoidance from earlier this year make them perhaps a company we should think twice about wanting to be associated with our national sport. There is an alternative and Good Energy — a company that produces its services from renewables would appear to be a sounder choice of supplier.

In that respect, perhaps publicity can be bad publicity after all? With the Swindon based giants ending the relationship as of this month, who will the Football League turn to from August?

Rob Langham
Rob Langham 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 50 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 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.

1 Comment

  1. Vault Boy
    June 3, 2013

    “Why did Coca-Cola, for instance, feel that a wet Tuesday evening encounter between Crawley and Stevenage or a juddering tackle from Stephen Hunt would help them sell more bottles and cans of their precious elixir?”

    I’m surprised you didn’t omit this silly question upon re-reading. A big part of the reason Coca-Cola are such a recognisable brand is through sponsorship like this. You don’t necessarily have to link the product to the brand, the brand just has to be there. As long as people are seeing the logo of Coca-Cola, it’s mission accomplished.


Leave a Reply