Q: As a new football season kicks off, I thought I’d ask you about shirt sponsors. Hull City recently announced a deal worth “seven figures” with 12BETuk, which is a gambling outfit, and Everton has extended its contract with Chang beer for another three years; that’s worth £16 million to the club.
A: And don’t forget Everton’s neighbours, Liverpool, which gets £31 million per year for wearing shirts with Standard Charter emblazoned across the front.
Q: So my first question is: Why?
A: Simple answer is: advertising. The Premier League is broadcast practically everywhere on the planet, so every time a game is shown, viewers see 22 moving advertisements for their product. The cumulative viewing audience is colossal.
Q: When did all this start?
A: Well, you have to remember association football has always been sponsored. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, clubs were usually started by churches or factories. The factories in particular sponsored teams with kit, travelling expenses and even wages after professionalism was allowed in 1864. But they weren’t allowed to use their players’ shirts to advertise themselves. That crept in during the late 1970s, at first in Germany. Eintracht Braunschweig carried the liqueur Jägermeister logo on their kit in 1973.
Q: That recently?
A: Kettering Town, when the club was in the Southern League, could actually claim to have been the first British club to wear shirts with a brand name, in this case Kettering Tyres, way back in the 1975-76 season. The late Derek Dougan (1938-2007, pictured above in early 1976) was the inspiration behind this innovation. The League told the club to remove the lettering. In 1977, Derby County explored a deal with Saab, the Swedish carmaker, and approached the Football League (this was before the Premier League) for permission. The deal didn’t go through, but, as the League approved it, Liverpool rushed in and clinched a deal with Hitachi.
Q: How much?
A: Difficult to know for sure, but £50,000 is the figure I’ve heard. It sounds a ridiculously small amount now, but back in 1978, no one had a clue whether it would be effective, so it was an experiment.
Q: It’s a wonder no one else came up with the idea before, isn’t it?
A: Not really. Football was a sport in the 1970s, not a popular entertainment. Let me explain: although it was a professional game and the players were well-paid after the maximum wage (i.e. wage ceiling) was abolished in 1961, football was not meant to be a business and fans were not customers; they were organic parts of the club. No one would have dared talk about a football market, as they do today. Clubs were wary of the accusation that they would be exploiting fans.
Q: I imagine the Football League was concerned too.
A: Absolutely. The lettering on the shirts was restricted to a maximum size, 2×8 inches back then, which is a lot smaller than the logos we see splattered across shirts today.
Q: But I guess it caught on straightaway, right?
A: Not quite: the television companies opposed it. BBC didn’t allow advertising of any kind and either refused to broadcast games featuring games with teams playing with sponsored shirts, or made those teams cover the lettering with tape. ITV opposed it for a different reason. As the company relied on advertising revenue, it hated the prospect of effectively advertising products and not only not receiving money for it, but having to pay for the privilege. So it was a highly controversial development. The television companies relented in 1983.
Q: Did fans wear the replica shirts with the sponsors’ names back then?
A: No. If you saw someone in the 1970s wearing a football shirt and trainers, you’d assume they had been playing football. The shirts started to be worn as casual clothes around the mid-1980s. Now, this was a crucial development because when fans started wearing replica shirts, it meant that a commercial sponsor had it’s name or logo worn not just by eleven men, but by thousands and, in the case of well-supported clubs millions of people. I know it’s not a reliable figure, but Manchester United claim over 600 million fans around the world, which is why Chevrolet is paying the club £357million to plaster its logo on shirts for the next seven years (see picture below).
Q: So the fans became walking advertisements?
A: Precisely. If one person had dreamt this up, he or she would have been called a marketing genius. But it came about almost by accident. Remember the figure Liverpool gets paid by Standard & Charter bank: £31 million per year. This reflects Liverpool’s huge fan base, a global fan base too. So all over the world, fans are walking around advertising the bank.
Q: That sounds like exploitation.
A: It is. But no one is forcing the fans to pay fifty quid for the 2014-15 shirts, and, if you tried to sell the shirt without the sponsor’s name, fans would complain that it wasn’t an accurate replica. So they willingly agree to be like sandwich board carriers.
Q: So let me try to sum this up. You’re saying that shirt deals have to be understood in the context of changes in the sport rather than just changes in the regulations?
A: Yes. When shirts sponsorship was introduced, many people thought it was against the spirit of football and hurt its integrity. It also used the fans, rather than respected them. The idea of exploiting fans appalled most people. But, as football has become an entertainment industry, the fans have become customers and, as such, they are there to be squeezed. Look at the hikes in season ticket prices as another example. Fans enjoy wearing team strips and they want their shirts to look exactly the same as the players’. They say the most effective form of advertising is when people don’t realize it’s advertising. This is a perfect example.