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.