How the demise of local shirt sponsors has killed the connection between fans and their team

How the demise of local shirt sponsors has killed the connection between fans and their team

The first football jersey I owned was a knock-off Inter Javier Zanetti shirt that my mum brought me back from a trip to Italy when I was 11 years old. She had been told it was an Italy kit and that Zanetti was their best player. Of course, as a kid growing up in Boston, Massachusetts before the internet and with no way to watch any European football, it would be years before I learned that neither was true.

I wore that jersey everywhere – it still sits in a box in the house I grew up in – and proudly told people when they asked that the team was called “Pirelli” for what I would later learn was the advertisement that graced its chest. The idea itself of a sponsor’s logo on a jersey was, like pretty much everything else about European football back then, entirely foreign to me. And though even today I can’t help but grimace at the sight of a Goodyear logo on an NBA jersey, somehow that stylish logo for an Italian tyre company only added to its mystery.

I’m still struck by the prominence of the advertisements on jerseys, which generally dwarf a team’s crest. Inevitably, it’s the first thing you see, your introduction to a team, a city, a country, one you may otherwise know nothing about. For someone used to American sports, the ads on football kits occupy the sacred space for the letters, the proud spot across the chest that says who you really are.

I remember being in England in 1999 as a 14-year-old, the first time I’d been abroad, and in a place where football was a true part of the culture. The most blatant proof of this was the rows of kits that seemed to line every storefront along the many charming, winding high streets that have now blended into one. I would stare in wonder at names like Carlsberg, Strongbow, Newcastle Brown Ale, Walkers and McEwans and feel certain there was an entire world just beyond my reach that I would never know.

Two years later, in Paris, I would be instantly drawn to a beautiful Lens jersey thanks to its Orange advertisement and then in Rome would convince my parents to buy me a Roma jersey (which just won out over a Parma shirt), largely for the words INA Assitalia scrawled on its front. What either of these companies actually were – one a telecommunications firm, the other an insurance giant – was an afterthought entirely.

If anything, these ads only furthered these jerseys’ intrigue and made them somehow more authentic. It seemed natural that a team from Newcastle should have “Newcastle” written on its front just as Parma should have Parmalat or Roma the word “Italia”.

Reality would catch up with me. The only one of those beers I actually liked wasn’t British after all, Parmalat went bankrupt after being found guilty of fraud, and a set of Pirelli tyres my dad bought didn’t make it through the New England winter. Yet, I still miss that time and, above all, the feeling that football was somehow once more local, more organic, more real.

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I can’t help but wonder what my reaction would have been, and indeed what a 14-year-old today’s reaction would be, to the names Fly Emirates, Qatar or Etihad Airways, Chevrolet, Yokohama Tyres, Visit Malaysia or any number of international online gambling outfits hanging in a shop window in Chester or Salisbury. Could they possibly hold the same allure?

I am, of course, aware of the danger of starting from the premise that everything was perfect with European football at precisely the moment I became aware of it, and of going in search of and pining for a pure, golden age that never existed. Still, I wonder if the global game is not nearing a breaking point in its relentless pursuit of the international market by overlooking what is and always has been a fundamental piece of the brand they’re selling: the local supporter. 

I’m hardly the first person to consider this. This past fall, at the Leaders Sport Business Summit in London, much time was reportedly dedicated to the concept of “glocal” – that is, ensuring an international product doesn’t lose its local appeal. This is perhaps in response to several protests across Europe the past few years, at clubs as prestigious as Liverpool, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, over increased ticket prices and adjusted kick-off times to better suit foreign television markets.

Nonetheless, matches on weeknights and at seemingly all hours are now the norm across Europe as leagues and teams aim to maximize their exposure. Even Serie A, long reluctant to change, now regularly stages matches on Friday and Monday nights in addition to a much-bemoaned noon fixture every Sunday (7pm in China). LaLiga even hopes to play an official league game in Miami as early as this year. The reality of these decisions is echoed in the protests that oppose them: that the fans inside the stadium count less and less.

It’s a difficult balance to strike. A team like Liverpool, for example, has over 32m “fans” on Facebook despite playing in a city of around 500,000 that the majority of these people have likely never even been to. And a large part of what draws these new eyeballs to the clubs is not just the football, but the ambience that surrounds it. “I just love the atmosphere, the stadium, how crazy the fans are,” a woman told me recently when I asked her why she supported Liverpool, echoing a sentiment that many have shared with me when describing their fascination with the Premier League or European football at-large.

But it is truly possible to have it both ways? To be both a global and a local club? And how do you define this? Squads are more and more international, while the influx in the last 20 years or so of foreign ownership and investment has only made it more difficult to tell just who, or which country, owns what percentage of which club and just where their money may or may not be coming from.

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Shrewd boardrooms are also constantly finding new ways to skirt financial regulations and remain as opaque as possible. One thing they can’t hide from, however, is the name written across their chest, in bold and for all to see. And from this standpoint, the evidence suggests that it is increasingly difficult to be both successful and remain true to your local roots. 

To attempt to answer this, I looked into primary jersey sponsorship (most clubs now feature smaller, secondary advertisements on the sleeve or elsewhere) across the five major European Leagues and the Champions League. 

In the Premier League this season, only three teams, Liverpool (Standard Chartered), Southampton (Virgin) and Watford (FXPro), don an English sponsor. Should Liverpool prevail as champions, they would be the first club to do so with a domestic sponsor since Manchester United won in 2012/13 with Aon on their shirtfronts.

In the last decade, the biggest winners have been Etihad Airways (UAE, three titles), Samsung (South Korea, two) and the aforementioned Aon (two). Even Leicester City, whose fairy-tale run to the league title in 2015/16 was hailed as a victory for provincial underdogs, were spurred on by the Thai company King Power.

Things look similar in Italy, France and Spain, at least in terms of the most successful clubs. Juventus’ near-total command of Serie A has meant that only Jeep (USA) has lifted the trophy for the past six seasons, and is almost certain to once again this campaign. The last time an Italian sponsor celebrated a title was in 2011/12, when Balocco was featured on the Juventus away kit.

In France, Paris Saint-Germain’s dominance has meant that Fly Emirates has claimed six of the last seven Ligue 1 titles, a run broken only by Monaco and Fedcom (a company so mysterious it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page) two seasons ago. The last French sponsor to triumph was Sud de France on the chest of Montpelier in 2011/12.

LaLiga, meanwhile, has seen by far the longest drought: not since Valencia (Metrored) in 2001/02 has a Spanish sponsor won the title. This is, of course, largely to do with the preeminence of Barcelona (Qatar Foundation, Qatar Airways, Unicef, Rakuten) and Real Madrid (Fly Emirates, Bwin), who in the last decade have ceded the title just once to Azerbaijan, or Atlético Madrid.

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Where these leagues do differ somewhat from the Premier League is in the makeup of their smaller clubs. This season, for example, in Ligue 1, 15 clubs feature domestic shirt sponsors. In Serie A, the number is 13, while LaLiga counts six. Still, in terms of both success in titles won and overall league popularity, there is clearly a direct correlation with foreign shirt sponsorship.

Where this pattern does not hold, however, is in Germany. In fact, a foreign shirt sponsor has never won the Bundesliga. The closest they’ve come is a Hammad Airport (Qatar) shoulder patch that Bayern Munich began wearing last season. It’s easy to imagine that Bayern, and T-Mobile’s, ascendancy (seven titles in the last ten years) skew these numbers, but only three clubs in this year’s Bundesliga do not feature a domestic sponsor. Even more impressive, Borussia Dortmund, twice winners in the last decade, have a truly regional shirt sponsor in Evonik.

In a way this all makes sense. The 50+1 rule in Germany stipulates that no club will “be allowed to play in the Bundesliga if commercial investors have more than a 49 percent stake.” This means ultimately that the fans maintain the majority-share in their club, which ensures a strong local flavour. Unsurprisingly, the Bundesliga has by far the highest average attendance of any league and is second in revenue only to the Premier League.

Bayern are also the last team to win the Champions League with a domestic sponsor, when they beat Dortmund in 2012/13. The only other side to manage this in the last decade was Inter, still wearing Pirelli, who triumphed under José Mourinho in 2010. It’s no shock that the only multiple winners of the most prestigious European trophy in the last ten years are the UAE (Fly Emirates), with four titles, and Qatar (Qatar Foundation and Qatar Airways), with two.

So things have clearly changed since my first jersey all those years ago. And, in fact, the globalising trend began at the exact moment I started following European football: The 2001/02 season was the last in which the winner of each of the top five leagues wore a domestic sponsor: Nantes (Synergie), Manchester United (Vodafone), Roma (INA Assitalia), Real Madrid (Teka) and Bayern, who also won the Champions League (Opel).

It can be both dangerous – and difficult not to – take my own introduction as a baseline to this issue. There was a time when there were no sponsors on the jerseys that I’m sure many others recall fondly. You could also argue that once these teams, these leagues, belonged only to a select few, they now, thanks in no small part to international investing and advertising, can be enjoyed by almost anyone around the world.

As an inevitable result, local fans’ connections to these teams may never be as personal and intimate as they once were. However, given the drastic shifts in the game this century and particularly in the last decade, I do wonder if there isn’t a tipping point.

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True fans’ loyalties, we like to say, go beyond the players and the owners who come and go, and instead lie solely with the kit, but who exactly does this mean we’re supporting? It has become harder and harder not to feel like a pawn caught up in some international proxy conflict, where clubs are thinly veiled vessels for the wielding of soft power. It’s hard not to think of Manchester United (Chevrolet) versus Manchester City (Etihad) as USA versus Abu Dhabi or Barcelona (Rakuten) versus Real Madrid (Fly Emirates) as Japan versus Dubai, or Roma (Qatar Airways) versus Juve (Jeep) as Qatar against the US.

What’s more, these foreign brands often have little or no actual presence in the country in which they are advertising. Rather, as Carsten Thode – chief strategy officer at Synergy Sponsorship, a sports and entertainment marketing agency – shared with the Financial Times, these companies simply treat the “shirt as billboard” and sponsorship itself as a “global brand awareness play.”

Against this backdrop, there is something nostalgic now about watching Cagliari play with Ichnusa (a Sardinian beer) on their shirt, or Celta Vigo with Estrella Galicia (also a local beer), or Stuttgart and Wolfsburg with Mercedez-Benz and Volkswagen respectively, each native to the city whose team they sponsor. Sadly, though, a spot in the Europa League is about as much as these clubs could ever hope for.

So when will it end? Will the time come when a club’s endless curation and pursuit of a global image ultimately alienates and drives away the fans on the ground; those whose vital role in the spectacle they have not recognised or have come to take for granted?

Unfortunately, things don’t seem like changing any time soon and despite the clear merits of the Bundesliga system, the blueprint for quick success, and the dream of many a struggling club, unfortunately remains a foreign takeover. And rather than other countries adopting this more sustainable approach, much the opposite is happening as the rule itself is being challenged within Germany by those who see it as inhibiting the league’s international appeal.

It’s a shame. The greater availability of football on television does not make it more special; it does the opposite. The ubiquity of European leagues on TV makes me feel like a consumer, and somehow complicit in the takeover. I also worry about the World Cup. The newly-founded UEFA Nations League means essentially we’ll get international football year-round, eroding the fleeting appeal of national team competitions.

The idea is that we as fans simply can’t get enough. I disagree. As the Borussia Dortmund CEO stated when discussing the importance of the 50+1 rule, when the local spectator “gets the feeling that he’s no longer regarded as a fan but instead as a customer, we’ll have a problem.” I think we have a problem.

By Sam Griswold

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