When supporters of Southampton FC welcomed their team on to the pitch last week for the first game of the new football season, they may have noticed something missing, something that marks out nearly all professional football teams these days – the poorly designed, feebly thought-through and cack-handedly executed eyesore of a sponsor’s logo splattered all over the front of the strip.
It’s the club’s 125th anniversary and as part of its celebrations, it is reverting to its first-ever strip. They didn’t have shirt sponsors in 1885, so this year there will be no sponsor’s logo sullying the Saints’ shirts.
Sponsorship deals are invariably trumpeted as a triumph in the press. But a club spokesman accidentally blew the whistle on the real effects of these deals when commenting on the new strip. ’Our chairman decided to give the kit back to the fans in celebration,’ he said.
The implication is that shirt sponsorship takes something away from the fans. But these deals are often so abysmal in their delivery that they can also detract from the club and the sponsor.
The defence is that football is big business and football sponsorship is worth millions of pounds a year. But what about the design implications? It’s astonishing how little thought is given to integrating the sponsor’s logo with the shirt design. One of the most horrific examples this season is West Ham’s sponsorship deal with Asian online betting firm Sbobet. The logo has been ironed on with no consideration for the size, weight or balance of the super-bold typeface. Nor is there any sympathy for the club’s colours.
Arsenal too has a new strip, in burgundy and yellow, sponsored by Emirates. While it is also too big, at least the logo is used in burgundy, making it look like an integral part of the design.
There are also wider implications for the clubs. What does it say about a club when it takes money for advertising little-known Internet gambling sites or when it flaunts the banner of a company that has nothing to do with football, the club or the area it comes from? Just a few years ago Emirates was sponsoring Arsenal’s archrivals Chelsea, for example.
What does it say about the club when one unknown sponsor pulls out and is replaced by another equally anonymous and irrelevant name? Manchester United’s deal with AIG was recently replaced by an £80m deal with another American financial giant, Aon Corp.
And what of the sponsors themselves which, having demonstrated little understanding of design, go on to display no grasp of branding and less knowledge of how sponsorship should work? The Sponsorship 101 course teaches that you should ’leverage your sponsorship’, explain it outside its own arena so that people know about it, know about you and why you are sponsoring this club or event.
Mansion has just finished sponsoring Spurs for four years. The company spent the best part of £40m, but, despite repeated exposure on national TV, I still don’t know what Mansion does – betting or insurance would be my guess. But Mansion seems indifferent to this lack of knowledge and like many other shirt sponsors, hasn’t bothered to explain itself.
Conventional wisdom says that sponsorship works best when there is a reason for the link, or ’synergies’, as they say in marketing. For instance, Plymouth Argyle has the Ginsters logo on its shirt. Granted, the colours clash violently, but at least Ginsters is a local company with a plausible reason for sponsoring the club. One of the most successful sponsorships ever was Newcastle Brown’s sponsorship of Newcastle United. The link between beer, football and Newcastle was so tight it was perfect.
But what is the link between Everton and Thai beer brand Chang, Arsenal and Emirates, Birmingham and F&C Investments, Liverpool and Standard Chartered, Fulham and FxPro, or Spurs and Autonomy?
Too often companies approach sponsorship as a pure media buy, based on the exposure their name receives – and little else. West Bromwich Albion has gone one step further this year. Their sponsor’s logo is a house with what appears to be a phone number on it. They seem to have moved on from sponsorship as branding medium to sponsorship as a direct response tool.
In short, the majority of shirt sponsorships are an ugly mess. That’s one reason why I enjoyed the World Cup so much. It was a relief to watch national teams play for a while. Apart from the kit providers, there are no sponsors. Yet.