Hard to credit

After 22 years of sponsoring the top division in English football, Barclays is as big a part of the football fraternity as the clubs themselves

When Barclays first sponsored the Football League (as it then was) in 1987, the angry young men (as we then were) at WSC wrote: “What the deal says about the League is this: they believe that Barclays Bank enjoys more warmth and respect in society than football itself.” It was a fair point, particularly as the sum involved was only £4.55 million over three years, which might just be enough to attach your company’s name to Pat­rick Vieira’s socks these days. It seemed that it wasn’t so much the money the League needed, but reassurance from the corporate world that football had not sunk irredeemably beneath its notice.

Now that the Premier League are hooking up with Barclaycard, this time to the tune of £48 million over the same three-year period, things could hardly be more different. With many millions more pouring in from television and, for the lucky few, the Champions Lea­gue, football as a whole has no need for the psychological security blanket of a corporate tie-up and nor, it might be argued, does it really need the money.

Of course, £16 million a year will come in handy, though a percentage of that will be funnelled straight back to those who need it least, the Premier League clubs. Other bits go to more worthy causes such as the PFA, the League Managers Association and various community projects. But the willingness of the Premier League to offer their naming rights to the highest bidder still seems to speak of a lack of confidence rather than the reverse.

“They’re a brand that fitted our global aspirations,” said Richard Scuda­more, the Premier League’s chief executive, of Barclaycard. Global aspirations for what? Having a sponsor’s name attached does not seem a prerequisite for selling Premiership coverage to other countries. After all, of the other major European football countries, Germany Spain and France live well enough without attaching a company’s name to their domestic league. Italy’s Serie A is sponsored by a mobile phone company, but in a low-key kind of way that means it is rarely referred to.

While having a big-time sponsor may say something about your global appeal, over-eagerness to please – such as the prostitution of their stadium’s names by clubs such as Bradford City and Southampton – says something quite different. By contrast, deliberately not having a sponsor implies you genuinely believe in the value of what your are doing and have a proper feel for the way most fans think.

Two clubs spring to mind which do not currently have a sponsor’s name on their shirt. One is Barcelona, who prefer to keep their colours clean despite the vast amount of money they could make from selling the space. The other is Burnley, who decided at the start of this season that they would leave their shirts blank after negotiations with a prospective sponsor broke down, not only over money but also over the colour and style of their advertisement, which it was felt would spoil the kit.

Burnley, while not recouping the amount of money they might have earnt from sponsorship, have been rewarded by selling more replica shirts than ever before (designed in a traditional style by a local company belonging to the former player and manager Frank Casper). On their website, Burnley point out: “Many clubs are accused of viewing their relationship with their local community as a necessary evil. At Burnley FC, we are proud to place our community operation at the centre of our operational strategy.”

This is a strange mix of language, but an appropriate one, and it sheds light on the shirt issue. Having a traditional, sponsor-free shirt does not just give you a good feeling. It can also be part of an “operational strategy” to position the club (“brand” it) as traditional, community-oriented and local.

It might work for a medium-sized club in a small town, but that is not what competitions with “global aspirations” are like. Or is it? Adam Crozier has hinted that the Football Association may not seek a new sponsor for the FA Cup when the current deal runs out. If that happened, it would go some way towards the apparently impossible task of restoring some of the competition’s credibility. The Champions League has effectively killed its old status, but a sponsor-free FA Cup would for once send out a message of defiance and integrity to a world otherwise hypnotised by the corporate imperative. And, for the same reasons as Burnley, it would be good business too. 

From WSC 172 June 2001. What was happening this month