I am a Man Utd supporter. I’ve argued my reasons elsewhere on these pages but I generally tend to take a pretty relaxed stance on the reasons for supporting a particular football team. As the top football clubs become more and more desperate to tap into foreign cash, both through investment and public relations, they begin to grow and swell until they are nearly unrecognizable from what they once were. This leads to confusion surrounding a clubs identity, and warrants all motives for support fair game. Locality or longevity no longer sit atop the tree.
So how are these new identities formed?
Well like it or not, the goal of modern-day football is profit motivated; if you’re big enough to win something, you’re trying to turn a profit. That stands in stark contrast to the days when clubs existed to serve the communities and towns which birthed them. Some still do, but sadly for such clubs simply being able to afford 16 players and registration for the next season is often considered mission accomplished.
So the bigger teams toe the line between trying to please their share holders and their supporters at the same time. But doing both is a delicate task though.
One get-rich-quick scheme that American sports franchises seem happy to adopt is selling the naming rights for their stadia. Qwest field, Bank of America Stadium, Minute Maid Park and At&t Park are a few less-than-subtle examples. However some stadia in the UK have existed for over 100 years, most with the same name and pitching a rebranding idea to thousands of loyal fans is a non-starter. Greedy they may be, but any chairman will tell you that happy fans are profitable ones.
What fans do not seem to mind though is other sponsorship, the sort that is plastered across teamwear or rotates alongside the pitch. This does not appear to contravene the ideals of the ‘average supporter’ at all. The most obvious example of sponsorship placement is on the team shirt, the one which players and fans alike don on match days. Regardless of the financial figures involved, it is this sponsor which attracts by far the most coverage and it is therefore logical to assume that it is most directly associated with the club’s identity, not least because it often dwarfs the club’s official logo.
It is a wonder then that clubs do not take greater care in the selection criteria for a shirt sponsor.
France famously prohibits alcohol advertising on tv, which includes shirt sponsorships for football clubs. Several teams travelling there on European night have been forced to play with no shirt sponsor as a result.
Interestingly, France has seen a sharp decline in drinking levels since the ban*. Another reason British clubs would do well to remember their responsibility when choosing a gambling, alcohol or high interest loan themed sponsor.
Incredibly, in 2008 Aston Villa announced that they would be replacing their previous shirt sponsor with the children’s charity ‘Acorns’ in a move never seen before or since in the Premier League. Villa received no financial reward for this gesture, and instead greatly increased the profile and fundraising capabilities of a fantastic cause.
However, they were not the only ones.
This weekend sees the culmination of the biggest club competition in world football: The UEFA Champions League Final. Manchester United will face Barcelona in a repeat of the 2009 final in Rome, where Barcelona won 2-0.
Both these teams can make a genuine claim to be the biggest football club in the world, quite possibly ever. Indeed, they are the two most successful teams in the Champions League era. In most categories they cannot be separated, however in terms of shirt sponsorship, they are ying to yang.
Of all clubs, no one epitomizes the global obsession of modern football like Utd. do. Regarded as the most supported club in the world, they perennially whore themselves out to whoever will bid most to have them. In 2009 this strategy lead to the perfect marriage between themselves and AIG, and insurance house commonly regarded as the world’s most unethical company.
As the global economy collapsed most people pointed the finger firmly at the torso of every Utd player. Utd didn’t seem to care.
4 months after Utd met Barcelona in the 2009 final and a year after the financial meltdown had begun, AIG paid over $450million dollars in executive bonuses. This year, they are again sponsored by insurers. Come Saturday 28th May, the world will watch 11 men wearing the eerily similar AON emblazoned across their chests.
And the opposition? Well, as in 2009 Barcelona will take to the field adorned by the words ‘Unicef’. Like ‘Acorn’, Unicef are a children’s charity ‘protecting children and their rights’.
Say what you like about Barcelona (and I am not always a big fan) they appear to be fully aware of their responsibility as the biggest club in the world and they intend to take it seriously.
Ultimately, football clubs are bigger than shirt sponsors. A shirt sponsor does not define a club or represent it either. However it does give an insight into the brains and the minds running the organization, and what their goals and motives might be. Utd’s apparent disregard for the reputations of their sponsors remains a long term concern of mine.
Ultimately, football clubs are far bigger than shirt sponsors, but ultimately, life is also bigger than football and for that reason I’ll be on the fence this Saturday,
* This article in the British Medical Journal says so: http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d1767.full