With Atlético Madrid plumbing new depths of design disaster, David Wangerin traces the history of kit advertising from Kettering Tyres to Spiderman 2 and wonders if club identity has been lost along the way
Look at any football photograph from the mid-Seventies. The glue-pot pitch, the plain white ball and the wild sideburns of some of the players certainly call to mind an almost primitive era, as does the enormous terrace of fans crammed into the background. Yet one anachronism in particular reveals just how the visual elements of British football have changed: the remarkable austerity of the playing strips. There are no manufacturer trademarks and no league logos or appeals for fair play on the sleeves. Most conspicuously of all, nothing is displayed across the chest. It’s undeniably an outdated image, yet one that happily draws the eye closer to the tiny club crest, instead of toward some gargantuan commercial message. An age of marketing innocence, some will bewail, but one certainly to be admired for its aesthetic appeal, to say nothing of its integrity.
It is apparently now 25 years since the Football Association first permitted shirt advertising, bending to pressures that their French, Austrian and Swiss equivalents had acceded to a decade earlier. Cash-starved teams wasted little time in transforming themselves into ambulatory billboards, soon to promote all manner of breweries, electronics firms, airlines, building societies, fast-food restaurants, online casinos, anti-smoking initiatives and the odd garden centre. So ingrained has it all become that it now seems strange whenever a club happens to play in a strip devoid of such graffiti: one becomes suspicious that the commercial department has not got its act together, or that the “brand” lacks sufficient appeal to the commercial world.
While Liverpool are widely regarded to have been the pioneers of this movement, splattering Hitachi across their collective selves in 1979, strictly speaking they weren’t the first British club to compromise themselves in this way. A few years earlier, Kettering Town had tested the FA’s resolve by turning out in jerseys promoting Kettering Tyres. The club’s chief executive, none other than Derek Dougan, claimed the advertising ban had never been put in writing; when the FA ordered him to desist, he craftily truncated the message to a more ambiguous “Kettering T” – in vain, as it turned out: under the threat of a crippling fine, the remaining letters disappeared a few months later.
No such fate awaited the Anfield Reds and their Japanese suitors, who were given a statutory 16 square inches of space to sell, in letters no more than two inches high (a regulation that would land Aston Villa in hot water a few years later when they exclaimed “Mita” a little too loudly). Others would follow in rapid succession – not in front of the television cameras, mind; another decade would pass before that barrier fell – and soon companies such as Hafnia and Talbot found themselves as prominent, and unwanted, a part of the game as the professional foul and the offside trap.
The landscape of the time was, of course, rather more barren – particularly at the top: for all their domestic and European glory, Liverpool’s chairman claimed his club had earned a profit of just £71,000 in their last season of unadorned attire. Today, of course, such a figure is so inconsequential as to scarcely warrant attention at a club of such stature. And English football had still to encounter the penury of the Eighties: one need only thumb through the diary section of the day’s Rothmans to realise just how hard-up even the title contenders were in the years before the television monster was unleashed.
However laughable those first shirt deals may seem in comparison with today’s arrangements (typically, a few hundred thousand stretched over two or three years – for the bigger clubs), there was at least something of a financial case for them. Today, leagues such as the Premiership advance the case in tiresomely familiar rhetoric: shirt sponsorship is no longer a financial lifeline, just another attractive revenue stream.
For some, of course, it is far more attractive than others. Those clubs distant of Vodafone United or the O2 Gunners may think shirt deals enhance their competitiveness; they would be wise to think again. The space on a Charlton Athletic or Blackburn Rovers chest will only ever earn a fraction of the £30-odd million Manchester United are said to command for theirs. Denying top-division clubs the opportunity to rent out this space would remove some of the tilt from an already heavily sloped playing field. But, like penalty shoot-outs and promotion play-offs, it’s almost as if football can’t remember coping without it.
So it has come to pass that thousands upon thousands of fans parade through the streets of Britain in outfits which promote a brand of lager or a telecom firm just as loudly as their football team; it is impossible not to pay as much attention to these “messages” as to the few square inches clubs keeps for themselves. In an age when shirts of any type tend to be worn not so much for colour or style as the words that appear on them, this is perhaps not too surprising. For the reactionaries opting out of this game, there is always the retro jersey, far better value and less likely to end up at Oxfam. But it is not nearly as easy to assert one’s loyalties in a somewhat ambiguous, if cotton-rich, shirt – not when a sponsor’s name can amplify the identity so markedly. For years, JVC were just as Arsenal as the club crest, Brother as much a part of Manchester City as sky blue; it just wasn’t discussed in polite company. The purpose of retaining the club crest, and keeping it so inconspicuously tucked into a corner, seems largely cosmetic, perhaps even defensive.
Yet wear a replica strip in those parts of North America that still live in ignorance of international football and you are likely to be met with comments like “Northern Rock? What team is that?” or “That striped shirt is cool, but why does it say ‘Churchill’ on it?” These are not stupid questions. To the uninitiated, Bolton are not playing Chelsea so much as Reebok are playing Fly Emirates. I for one can scarcely think of Brighton & Hove Albion without recalling Nobo, the firm that once loomed so large across their stripes.
This begs the question: in an age when clubs seem to speak as much of brand awareness as back fours, shouldn’t they be more concerned with the mixed messages of their kit? Sponsor colours and names often clash violently with those of the club: not long ago Aston Villa fans saw their claret and blue competing with the bright purple and lime green of their sponsor, creating a colour combination rarely seen outside infant school art class. Playing in shirts labelled “Friends Provident” cannot strike much fear into the opponents of Southampton; neither can the cuddly heart on Portsmouth’s chest or the wry smile on Tottenham’s. Cardiff City – the Bluebirds – have now struck a deal with a building firm named Redrow.
These and other arrangements (how the more corpulent fans of Grimsby Town must have enjoyed wearing a replica strip bearing the phrase “Food Giant”) seem risibly ill-advised, given the ferocity with which clubs now guard their “image”. Surely in time Manchester United will come to realise their most appropriate shirt sponsor is Manchester United plc. Yet the future points away from this, toward an environment where the lines between club and sponsor blur – particularly if recent developments in Madrid are anything to go by.
Atlético’s red-and-white striped shirts seem to have been forsaken for ones of navy blue; these, apparently, offer a more suitable backdrop for Atlético’s latest sponsor, the film Spiderman 2, whose webbed imagery all but chokes the life out of the club’s own identity. This “innovation”, which if nothing else will excite the 13-year-old in your life, seems to have aggravated UEFA, but it’s hard to imagine administrators standing in the way of the marketers for long. After all, it’s fewer than ten years since jerseys with advertising were first seen at a European Cup final.
If that’s not frightening enough, a quick trawl of the internet reveals that some poor soul at Leeds University business school has managed to segment football shirt sponsors into groups, concocting labels such as “Carers and Communals” and “Calculators and Commercials” to describe their behaviour. Apparently “clubs and sponsors are starting to recognise the need to take a different view of the way in which they manage their relationship”, don’t you know.
It’s perhaps too much to expect clubs to reclaim their own jerseys; you just can’t keep a good revenue stream down. And as the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable levels of commercialism is wholly subjective – and still evolving – we’re far more likely to see new sources of income being tapped into: shorts and hosiery, perhaps, or the soles of boots. Goalkeepers might even be encouraged to wear a baseball cap on the cloudiest of days. If it all seems rather preposterous, it might be worth remembering that only a few decades ago the thought of a football team turning out in a strip bearing the message “Fly Virgin” was equally as absurd.
From WSC 211 September 2004. What was happening this month