When a young kid dreams of becoming a top football player, or a famous manager it is unlikely that attending a ‘partnership signing ceremony’ set up to announce a new sleeve sponsor figures highly – or even at all – in their minds.
Yet in the modern game this is an unavoidable part of the role and so it was that Pep Guardiola, Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus and Jill Scott found themselves part of a carefully choreographed event at the City Football Academy along with City’s chief Executive Ferran Soriano and Nexen Tire CEO Travis Kang.
In making their announcement City became the first club to sign a deal since a relaxing of the rules allowed Premier League clubs to enter into sleeve sponsorship deals, to begin in the new season.
The sophistication of the event and the language of ‘partnership’, ‘relationship’ and ‘brand’ in the accompanying article on City’s official website demonstrate in themselves just how well accepted corporate sponsorship is in football.
All this is a far cry from just a few decades previously. It was in January 1976, far from the glamour of Manchester City and the Premier League, that Kettering Town, then of the Southern League, became the first British club to wear a sponsors name on their shirts when they faced Bath City with the name of local firm ‘Kettering Tyres’ on the front of their shirts.
The FA, whose rules barred such sponsorship deals, reacted by ordering Kettering to remove the companies name from their shirts. The club however, only partially complied, cheekily amending the lettering to ‘Kettering T’, arguing that the ‘T’ stood for town, but they eventually backed down under the threat of a £1,000 fine.
This was though not the end of the issue, particularly as clubs facing declining attendances and financial pressures sought new forms of income, and in 1977 the FA finally relaxed the rules around shirt sponsorship.
Unsurprisingly it was the big clubs who reaped the most benefit with league champions Liverpool signing a deal with Hitachi in 1979, reported to be worth £100,000 over two years whilst Arsenal’s 1981 deal with JVC saw them net £500,000 – both amounts far in excess of whatever Kettering earned from their deal. Ironically Kettering themselves were unable to even find a sponsor in the immediate aftermath of the rule change.
In the intervening years sponsorship deals grew to such an extent that the website sporting intelligence reported that for the 2016-17 season Premier league teams combined shirt sponsorship deals were worth some £226.5m,with Manchester United alone enjoying a club-record £47m-a-year deal with Chevrolet.
Importantly shirt sponsorship also won over the fans. The ‘JVC’ on Arsenals shirt would go on to be as iconic as it was lucrative. The same can also be said of other early sponsors such as Crown Paints and Liverpool, Sharp at Manchester United, or NEC at Everton. Shirt sponsors act as a point of reference for a particular era, or a moment of glory. In 2012 The Football Attic blog ran a contest to find the shirt fans found most iconic of all and among the top were: Holsten (Tottenham) Guinness (Queens Park Rangers)Newcastle Brown Ale (Newcastle) Pioneer (Ipswich), Carlsberg (Wimbledon), Wang (Oxford), JVC (Arsenal) and Commodore (Chelsea).
It remains to be seen though whether English fans will ever be receptive to the kind of shirt sponsorship seen in the likes of French football where several sponsors logos are permitted on shirts, including the sleeve, shoulders, and back, or Finland where football kits can be a confusing mish-mash of multiple sponsors logos all competing for attention and threatening to swamp the clubs own symbols of identity. Perhaps the furthest such sponsorship has gone is in the case of Brazilian Serie D side Fluminense de Feria who received worldwide media attention following their deal with a supermarket chain. The agreement saw the names of household items such as shampoo and pizza featuring on the back of the player’s shirts in place of player names with the price then displayed using the players shirt number. This may have brought the club some welcome cash, but perhaps at the cost of a little dignity. Thankfully sleeve sponsorship may be a long way from this point, but could it be one step further in this direction?