Premier League Club Shirt Sponsorship: Fans Are the Only Ones Missing Out in the Arms Race
It’s fair to say the 2017-2018 English Premier League season has started with a bang. The new campaign has seen a rejuvenated Manchester United side shine under the watchful eye of Jose Mourinho, Harry Kane’s customary August goal drought is now a distant memory, and Crystal Palace have shown green shoots of recovery. But what about off the pitch?

The big news is that, with shirt sleeve sponsorships being introduced for the first time ever, clubs have cashed in even more from lucrative deals. This season has seen brands including Western Union (Liverpool), Rovio (Everton) and Nexen Tires (Manchester City) all signing big money sponsorships. For the clubs, it’s clear to see how the new influx of sponsors offers an easy additional revenue stream – between £40m and £60m in total depending on what you read – as they seek to maximise commercial opportunities wherever they can.

Liverpool FC’s £25 million shirt sleeve sponsorship with Western Union has provided a lucrative additional revenue stream for the club
It’s easy to see why foreign brands have felt compelled to jump on the opportunity, as the Premier League’s global TV viewing figures of over 12 million on average per match offer them the chance to establish themselves in the market – particularly in the increasingly lucrative Asian territories. It’s therefore no surprise that 12 gaming brands are now emblazoned across the front or sleeve of Premier League club shirts, out of a total of 38 club deals, and 39% (15/38) of sponsors’ headquarters located in Asia.

But are sponsors forgetting about the fans?
In my opinion, yes.

It could be argued that the cost of deals is outweighed by the classic measures of brand exposure, but brands shouldn’t simply be buying eyeballs. I firmly believe sponsors are therefore missing a golden opportunity to engage with the thousands – and in some cases, millions – of fans who buy and wear the shirt that sport their logo on the front or sleeve. They should be trying to win the hearts and minds of football fans instead of simply branding 100cm2 on a football sleeve.

The fiercely loyal nature of fans means that brands who sign deals will, on the whole, be well received by those who now accept the commercial need for clubs to maximise their revenue at every opportunity (the Newcastle United and Wonga debacle aside). For me, sponsors should be grabbing the opportunity given to them with both hands to grow their brand by having deeper, more meaningful conversations with such a captive and passionate audience.
Sadly, for many of the shirt sleeve sponsors this season, the relationship will continue to remain solely between the club and the brand – particularly for those who view the agreement as simply a vehicle for expansion in the UK and other markets.

That’s not to say there aren’t sponsors who have made great strides in positively engaging with fans. One sponsor who wears their heart on their sleeve is home appliance brand Beko - who have sponsored the sleeve of FC Barcelona since 2014. Our work with them at the beginning of the sponsorship quickly led to a strategy where fans are at the heart of all global activations. As the club’s ‘Official Partner of Play’, it allows them to speak to the 300 million+ FC Barcelona fans worldwide, in a way that both enhances their day-to-day experience of supporting the club - through content featuring the players and money can’t buy experiences - but also effectively communicates Beko as an innovative yet playful brand.

Our client Beko has made great strides in winning the hearts and minds of FC Barcelona fans with their shirt sleeve sponsorship
A little further afield, Southampton’s front of shirt and sleeve sponsor, Virgin Media, have gained universal praise with their ‘Twenty’s Plenty’ campaign, where they pledged to subsidise all Premier League away tickets to £20. Not only did they perfectly capture the fan sentiment at the time – that the Premier League exploited those who help make the league such a marketable product - but used a sponsorship of a single club to deepen ties with football fans across the country in the process.

Virgin Media hit the nail on the head by helping to address a genuine football fan gripe with their Twenty’s Plenty campaign.
Now is the perfect opportunity for other sponsors to follow suit, by creating activations and communicating through their shirt deals in a way which allows football fans to connect with the brand. I’m not suggesting they should give back all access to players back to the fans, but how about setting aside an amount for them to meet the players or play at the stadium? Or why not adopt an element of Beko’s approach and create content that genuinely enriches fans’ experience of following their team?

Call me old-fashioned but isn’t football about its fans, without whom the game would be simply another form of entertainment for those on the sofa or in the pub? It feels right to reward the loyal supporters who become a walking advert for sponsors when they put on their team’s shirt every week.

We’re now at a time where the new shirt sleeve deals may only be beginning. With back-of-shirt deals - which already exist in La Liga and have been agreed by several EFL clubs - already on the horizon (not to mention the advent of back of shorts sponsors), wouldn’t it be refreshing for sponsors to seize their opportunity to engage with fans, without whom there may not be any sponsorship deals in the first place.

You might have seen it in the Guardian, but Synergy’s very own Jonathan Izzard has created an interactive infographic on shirt sponsors which shows the changing commercial landscape of the Premier League. Click here to read more.