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Why relevance should win over revenue in shirt sponsorship : Get Me Media’s Pete Davis

Earlier this year the NBA recently announced it was allowing its basketball franchises to attract shirt sponsors for the first time, Get Me Media’s Pete Davis hopes they won’t follow the football route and only sell to the highest bidder.

For years, the big US sports franchises – basketball, American football, baseball, ice hockey, etc – have protected their first-team shirts from sponsorship. There have been plenty of deals elsewhere, including individual player endorsements and practice shirt sponsors, but the main shirts have remained sacrosanct, unsullied by commercial forces.

But it’s clear that times are changing, with the recent news of the NBA opening up basketball team shirts to sponsorship.

This, of course, is nothing new in European football. But let’s hope the NBA teams do shirt sponsorship better.

So what’s the problem with football shirt sponsorship? Most of the major clubs in Europe have a shirt sponsor, so it’s popular. It also generates a lot of revenue for the clubs concerned. So how could it be better?

Well, it’s all down to relevance. In most cases, football clubs simply give the sponsorship of their shirts up to the highest bidder. No problem here, you might think, as surely the point is to make as much money out of it as possible. Well, yes and no.

Should sponsorship be solely about the money? An appropriate partnership cannot only generate revenue for the club concerned, but also deliver further value through association. And this is particularly important for the sponsor.

A sponsor aligned with the vision, values and branding of a club will potentially add to the livery of the football shirt and reinforce this image, as well as generate extra funds. An appropriate, sympathetic and compatible sponsor, meanwhile, will resonate with the fans and the wider football community, generating engagement, building a relationship, and essentially be as much in partnership with this fanbase as the club itself. This is far more likely to place the sponsor front of mind – where every brand wants to be – driving more bang for their buck than simply throwing money at the deal.

So let’s have a look at some of the Premiership clubs’ shirt sponsors. They are dominated (35%) by sports betting companies, which while some may say are appropriate in a business sense, are surely inappropriate from an ethical perspective, and so hardly reflect glory on the clubs they sponsor. Some 25% span insurance or finance, for which there is little relevance. Similarly for the two Middle Eastern airline sponsors. Then come a random selection including an Asian tyre company with an unclear strategy.

Out of all 20 Premiership teams, there are hardly any, you could argue, that add real value to the club beyond revenue. One of the best brand fits is British lifestyle consumer electronics brand Veho’s shirt deal with Southampton, associating the club with innovation, plus it’s a UK business. And at least Everton’s Chang Beer and Leicester’s King Power, a duty free retailer, are consumer brands, albeit from a different continent. In fact, Leicester’s case is quite interesting because the sponsor actually owns the club, making it a completely different relationship. Most owners prefer to be behind the scenes. By also being the sponsor, the King Power brand is more closely tied to the success of the club and able to leverage more value when things are going well, and so is basking in glory now, but is likely to suffer more when it isn’t.

So what would better alternatives look like. Well Red Bull would seem a great fit for Manchester United or Liverpool in terms of colour and the performance enhancing nature of the product. Local crisp brand Walkers would work well with Leicester – and once were a shirt sponsor at the club. Strong past examples include Hitachi’s and Samsung’s sponsorship of Liverpool and Chelsea respectively, again imbuing the image of the clubs with innovation and success.

Perhaps another good test would be whether fans are prepared to walk around in a shirt sporting a particular sponsor. Just how happy must Newcastle United fans be about wearing something with Wonga on it?

What is clear is that more can be done to leverage the maximum value from shirt sponsorship for both the club and the brand – not to mention the fans – through striking more carefully thought out deals that are not just all about the money.

If a relevant and appropriate sponsor is chosen it can reflect positively on the club, while the sponsoring company can get full value from the money they have invested in terms of actually generating business. Let’s hope the NBA teams take this approach and show football how it’s done.