Not Howay’ To Do It

Oliver Truman this week takes a brief look into the topic of sports sponsorship.

As is de rigueur in the UK, hardly a weekend goes by when at least some of my time isn’t occupied by watching football (or “soccer”, if you’re that way inclined). After all, it’s Britain’s main pastime and is firmly ensconced as part of the national consciousness.

Colleagues, friends and rivals up and down the land talk of the beautiful game as often as they do the weather. And as if to prove the pervasiveness of football, several e-mails have just landed in my inbox informing me of updates of the various online fantasy football games I take part in. (For the record, I should point out that I was the resounding winner of the B2B “Supercup” last season – A fantasy football mini-league that several of us here participate in – Despite Nick’s protestations that he should have won by virtue of scoring the most goals…).

Marketers have long understood the lucrative tie-ins that can be realised by associating their company’s brand with sport. Over the years certain household names have grown to become synonymous with the folklore of football in Britain. Bovril and Holland’s Pies may be evocative of a simpler time – when footballs were made of cast iron and players managed to “run off” broken limbs – but they were early examples of the big business that sports sponsorship has undoubtedly become.

Shirt sponsorship has been part of the game since the late 70s, when Liverpool became the first team to have a company’s name emblazoned onto their jerseys. Recent deals, worth £20m a season between Liverpool and Standard Chartered Bank and Manchester United and AON demonstrate that the football sponsorship bubble shows no sign of abating. (As a related aside, judging by the image below, I reckon you can guess why the 1986-1988 Wimbledon shirt holds particular fondness for me, even though I don’t support them!).

Only this week came the news that Newcastle United Football Club were looking to sell off the naming rights to St. James’ Park, the team’s stadium. That Newcastle should be looking for new commercial opportunities should come as no surprise – The team has recently been relegated from English football’s top-flight, their current shirt deal with government-owned Northern Rock is due to come to an end, and embattled owner Mike Ashley has failed in his attempts to offload the club.

Selling naming rights to sports stadiums is hardly a recent development, however. As early as 1953, the Annheuser-Busch company proposed re-naming Sportman’s Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team to the “Budweiser Stadium”. The largest stadium naming rights deals in the US are now extremely big business. In 2006 CitiGroup announced that they would be buying naming rights for the New York Mets’ new ground, in a deal worth $400m over 20 years. A world away from pies and hot beef extract.

Like many marketing ideas, what started as a US-initiative has since arrived on this side of the Atlantic. Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and Huddersfield’s Galpharm (formerly McAlpine) Stadium are just a few famous examples from the world of English football. So why, then, do many Newcastle fans regard the proposed selling of stadium rights as being far from “canny”?

The distinction to be drawn, it seems, is that in almost all of the successful cases of stadium sponsorship, the naming has generally been of new grounds, where no established appellation exists. This is clearly not the case with St. James’ Park – home to the team since 1892.

The effects of corporate sponsorship of stadiums can be made more palatable to fans, however, if the company has a strong local connection. York City’s Kit Kat Crescent (after the chocolate bar first produced by Rowntree’s in York) or Leicester City’s Walkers Stadium are two good examples of this.

In the case of Newcastle United, one might think that there can think of no better “local” sponsor of the stadium than Newcastle Brown Ale – A drink that was first produced in a brewery adjacent to the ground in the 1920s. Except for the fact that production is soon to move to North Yorkshire.

On balance, therefore, it should come as no surprise that one bookmaker is offering odds of 4/7 on St. James’ Park being called just that at the start of next season.

I suppose, therefore, the lesson to be learned is this: In the world of corporate sponsorship, branding and marketing it’s almost always the finer details that matter. The damage of unintended consequences that can result from an injudicious marketing campaign can wreak havoc on a firm’s standing. Under such circumstances, research is very much your friend!

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