By Gary Linke
I was recently asked by a PL Club, with some notable rivalries, whether there is any evidence that if a brand sponsors one club, supporters of rival clubs then refuse to buy that brand?
I thought about it, then posted the question on the Unofficial Partner’s Whatsapp group (UPWG). The UPWG is made up of previous guests of Unofficial Partner as well as people in senior roles in the sports industry and is by invitation from Richard Gillis and Sean Singleton.
From this branded gentry, such as Giles Morgan, ex-HSBC, it is true that certain brands 'would not do a club' which is not an easy objection to overcome when you are a football club looking to find commercial partners.
Some brand decision makers feel strongly that if you sponsor one club, then you will lose consumers as some fans that support other clubs will refuse to buy your product or service given a choice.
However, even though this hypothesis should be measurable, via the likes of Nielsen Sport, I do feel that common sense/gut feel has been the main driver here.
I have some limited experience of trying to sell partnerships on behalf of football clubs and fear of alienation of their brand should they become a partner is sometimes the reason given for not taking discussions further from the brand decision makers and their retained agencies.
In the brand partnership world, for every “Deliveroo”, who invested in club deals with LUFC, PSG and Lyon, as well as national properties including the FAs of England and Italy plus partnerships with La Liga and the Dutch League there is a “Just Eat”, who originally sponsored Derby County but then have avoided club sponsorship deals ever since and now utilise broadcast sponsorship (PL coverage on BT Sport and Talk Sport). Just Eat/Takeaway were already a partner of the Euros and today has announced an all encompassing partnership with UEFA that includes the Champions League and the Women’s Euros in 2022.
Cazoo have also “mixed and match” in football becoming an official partner of the EFL as well as being the main shirt sponsor of Aston Villa and Everton in the Premier League which were their first acquisitions and also have invested in Rugby League World Cup 2021 and The Hundred in cricket.
Their competitor Cinch have become the sleeve partner of Tottenham Hotspur but have looked outside football otherwise becoming a kit partner of the England Cricket Team across T20 and ODI’s and have also become an elite partner of Northampton Saints in the Gallagher Premiership and the main partner for the Queen’s Club Tennis tournament.
In the last three years, I have received feedback from some companies and agencies of all sizes that have a policy: 'we're not interested in an individual club'.
So if no public sales data is readily available, where does this all come from?
Football rivalries are intense and can be based on both current competition between clubs,
geography, religion, history and also the ugly side of the game which can cover controversial matches and historical clashes between fans.
Some clubs are hated by more of their rivals more than others and these are usually the bigger clubs. Other clubs outside the big cities have just one rival that is locally based and their clashes are known as local derbies.
Whatever the situation, the question is whether a brand should take notice of these club rivalries in terms of their partnership acquisition and activation strategy?
In support of brands that don’t wish to sponsor a club, here a few of stories that have hit the national media that I recall:
The Leeds United “super fan” decorator that refused to paint a house red but will give a 10% discount for anyone painting their house white! He even wrote a book called 'Paint It White' published in 2004.
This article from 2012 shows that Gary Edwards and paint did not go away -
Andy Gray, ex-player and broadcaster, on publishing his book, said: "I'd grown up in a house in Glasgow where nobody would eat the Penguin biscuit in the green wrapper. In other words, we were Rangers through and through.”
If true, this article from the press cutting service would set alarm bells ringing in most brand management meetings. https://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/black-cats-fan-boycott-1497424
Kevin Keegan, when manager of Newcastle United, appeared in a Sugar Puffs TV commercial with the Honey Monster. Sales slumped 20% in the North-East due to Sunderland fans not buying them.
So, what do brands do with this threat to their sales that could result from advertising their brand on a club shirt or using the club IP and players in a TV commercial, such as Nivea and Liverpool FC?
Well, one way of dealing with it is to sponsor both clubs in a city. In Glasgow, a double-glazing firm called CR Smith sponsored both Celtic and Rangers in 1984. This was then repeated by NTL in 1999 and Carling in 2003, for seven seasons. Then Tennents did the same until Celtic went solo with Magners Cider in 2013. Since then Celtic and Rangers shirts have not carried the same sponsor logo.
Whilst you could not debate the value of the association with two great clubs and the coverage of the regular derby matches that are the biggest games in Scotland, does a brand then get accused of being a 'two-timer'? Perhaps by not choosing your primary partner, you actually dilute the brand affinity your investment deserves from each club.
Another way to overcome polarisation is to sponsor a club and then become a tier-two partner of the rival club.
For example, three months after Manchester United announced Chevrolet as the new sponsor in a five-year deal believed to be worth more than £40m pa in 2013, Chevrolet then became an official partner of Liverpool FC.
My take on this is that this type of investment is known as 'hush money' - we chose to sponsor a massive club that happens to have won the title more times (20 times vs 19) but please accept some LED advertising for your beloved club to stop you from handing your car keys in or not buying a Chev in future.
So, what did the sponsorship experts on the Whatsapp group think in terms of whether a brand is risking sales polarisation or cannibalisation by sponsoring an individual club?
Joel Seymour Hyde, MD of Octagon: “We get this question so often from brands. As far as we have seen there is no evidence that it has a material impact. Of course there will be the odd hard-core fan who changes behaviour but as a brand investing in a shirt sponsorship , if that worries you then you probably need to answer some other questions first..."
Tim Crow, ex-CEO of Synergy and now fully independent: “Researched it many times Gary, including for Vodafone (Man Utd), NTL (Celtic and Rangers) and Coke (various). Every time the result was the same which is that there is a tiny minority of fans whose behaviour can be affected but for the vast majority of fans, the reality is that they don’t actually change their behaviour, although many claim to.”
This brings me onto Simon Dent of Dark Horses fame: “I own no red clothing and nothing in my house is red. Red isn’t welcome in my life, I think I would fly Emirates though. Probably wouldn’t have welcomed a JVC video machine growing up as I would have spent a lot of time looking at the logo. I feel like the average (NB author has inserted bold) Spurs fan.”
Using my industry contacts, I was also able to get my hands on some actual data on Nivea, since their partnership with Liverpool FC was activated. They have used the likes of James Milner in TV advertising and the club crest and designation pops up on screen: Based on a nationally recognised sample, Liverpool fans do use more Nivea products and use more than Man United fans. However, here is the crux, Man United fans have a higher current user base and higher purchase intent and “Net Promoter Score” than the general UK population!
I also received the help of Professor Simon Chadwick, who besides being a member of the Whatsapp group, has spent 25 years working in leading business schools, published papers on the intersection of sport, business, politics and technology and is now one of the leading commentators in professional sport at elite level.
I received a plethora of reports with such mouth-watering titles such as “Measuring the effectiveness of corporate branding across rival teams”, “Are you with us or against us, the role of threat and anger in sport sponsorship” and “The impact of rivalry of amongst sports teams on sport sponsorship evaluation.”
Mountains of paper and according to research undertaken by Unofficial Partner's intern student, James Geaves, little, if no evidence that if you sponsor a team, the fans of rival teams do not purchase your product or service..
Whilst a sponsorship may generate some negativity amongst a group of people who aren’t relevant to the brand, it doesn’t mean the property should be avoided - sponsorship that brands truly believe in has a far more positive position, as opposed to the niche minority of rival fans who irregularly distance themselves from their rival clubs sponsorship brand.
As is widely known, we could be heading for a new era whereby clubs in the UK will not be allowed to display advertising from the betting and gaming industry on their playing or training wear as is the situation in Spain.
This may lead to a correction in the market and will mean that the 30 odd football clubs that have benefited financially from having betting brands on their playing kit, for several years in some cases, could be out to market for season 2022-23.
As for rights owners and certain sales agencies that will now have to work harder to secure non-betting partnerships, I hope that they can persuade brands that an individual club sponsorship opportunity is a rich piece of real estate that will not alienate customers who support your rivals.
For brands, I believe that this blog will put your mind at rest that the positive benefits of shirt
sponsorships completely outweigh any reservations about upsetting supporters of other football clubs.
When you receive the next opportunity to partner with a football club, ask yourself, do you really care if a die-hard fan, that has so much distaste for another football team they're prepared to walk out of a shop, pub or showroom then becomes a lapsed customer? Would you really worry about losing a few sales versus the opportunities that the most popular game in the world delivers?
Whether you work for a brand or a rights owner, if you wish to have an independent view on football partnerships opportunities, please feel free to get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org and you can read about some of the deals at TheMissingLinke.com