This article looks at how other football clubs have successfully – or unsuccessfully – navigated the issue of brand and sponsorship, and how they could best approach this.
Thanks to Rhiannon Price (Research Director) and James Vaughan-Smith (Operations Manager) at @NorthstarHub Northstar Research Partners.
On the 9th of April, the FA Council rejected Hull City FC’s bid to change its name to Hull Tigers. In the run up to the 9th, the club owner and its fans were in conflict over the name change, with the club’s owner threatening to sell up if the decision did not go his way, and fans spearheading a ‘City Till We Die’ campaign.
So why were the fans getting their new season’s kit in a twist? Before we look at the view from the terraces vs. a marketer’s perspective, it is important to place some context around sporting nomenclature. Football clubs have long been sponsored, but it is only relatively recently that said sponsorship has been unwelcomingly encroaching on the identity of teams. Sponsorship on shirts is pretty much par for the course, but the move to changing stadium nomenclature represented the crossing of a line that began to disgruntle fans.
As a Chelsea supporter, I feel fortunate that my club has not had to ‘sell out’ – instead it has managed to retain its own identity and develop as its own brand without changing its name. But it certainly hasn’t done this without any outside help. It was propped up by a certain oligarch and, in turn, by huge sponsors such as Audi, Armani, Adidas and Samsung among others.
Some clubs, on the other hand, who are perhaps not in such a fortunate financial position, have ended up having to compromise their club’s history – and thus anger their fans – by tying themselves into sponsorship deals for naming rights on their stadiums. Which, in the case of Newcastle FC who sacrificed one of the most iconic stadium names in English football history (St. James’ Park) for The Sports Direct Arena, can be a major PR issue.
Winning or losing aside, football clubs are families and communities that are connected by a common love and emotional aspirations of success. So when an individual who the fans have little or no connection to (i.e. a new chairman) wades in with the mantra “it will be financially and commercially advantageous for us to become Hull Tigers”, the fans say we are Hull City and until you can prove it, we don’t want to change.
Football is about far more than money. People up and down the country pay hundreds of pounds a year to see their team lose week in week out, so I think the fans would rather see sporting progression and achievement than a rebranding with a view to increase profits.
Devoid of emotional attachment to the ‘Beautiful Game’, I am able to look on from a purely marketing point of view and I see two things happening here: a) a more deep rooted rejection of a new marketing model; and b) a more superficial error being made by football clubs with regards to the sponsors they are partnering with.
An own goal for marketing?
Chelsea have proved that it is not the drive for money that fans have a problem with, after all, they still market themselves to a global stage and look past its locality to provide the bacon, but it does so in a way that maintains its dignity and the dignity of its fans. It seems to understand that while only a limited amount of money can come from its supporters, the richest club in the world is nothing without its fan base. And this is why clubs like Hull FC seem to be somewhat short sighted in their drive for investment.
The view from the terrace is spot on – football is about community and aspirations of success. It is a grass roots sport that originates in the working classes, and which holds much more psychological value than perhaps the average football fan gives it credit for. Paul Fussell at the University of Pennsylvania (as cited in Richard Florida’s ‘The Rise if the Creative Class) states that spectator sports are a marker of the working class in the sense that it provides pseudo-scholarship (i.e., comparing scores, strike rates etc.) and success and achievement through association. As Florida points out, this is of course a generalisation, but nonetheless it helps unlock why naming rights and team branding upset fans. You see, a focus on marketing represents an attempt to appeal more to the global stage than a local level. It moves to a top down model that prioritises money and marketing ‘stickiness’ vs. a bottom up model which is fan driven and prioritises the club’s legacy. It ultimately dilutes the spirit of a ‘local’ team and all the worth that goes along with it.
Despite my comments above, it does seem that some clubs have managed to ‘get away’ with a more explicit re-branding. Arsenal’s re-branding of their stadium to ‘The Emirates Stadium’ seems to have passed with little comment compared to Newcastle’s ‘Sports Direct Arena’. So why is this the case? For Arsenal, they recognised that innovation and a new product gives license to a change in naming and branding. They did not try to re-brand Highbury, they waited until they had new grounds which benefitted the fans and packaged all of this up in a pretty Emirates bow. There is also probably a lot to be said for the transference of brand attributes. Emirates holds some mystique and is a premium airline. It also holds cache as a credible sports sponsor with its involvement in tennis, cricket, motorsports and many more sporting events. Combine this with the club’s frugality, and Arsenal could argue its partnership transcended the need for money. Compare that to the brand equity of Sports Direct – a discount sports shop (revenue driven) that has more association with the high street than the playing field (lacks in credibility) and it is clear to see why fans took umbrage to this change.
So where does that leave football clubs who recognise the need for investment in order to ultimately appease and please their fans by staying in the running for silverware? Can they retain the historic construct of a football club, or are football fans faced with a new reality where the money oriented world of sports marketing, sponsorship and branding have to come first? We would argue that it doesn’t have to be choice. Clubs have to ask themselves if they are looking for investment to help them create their own success or a quick fix where appealing to anyone’s pocket will do.
The very fact that we are now living in a world of sporting sponsorship means there is plenty of sponsorship opportunity out there. Clubs can afford to be a bit more sensitive and intelligent in their choice of partnership that respects the club’s heritage and core values – the Newcastle Brown Ale Stadium perhaps? Maybe not, but you get the idea.