The perfect pitch

Football is the most popular sport in the world, so Matthew Foreman wonders why sponsors aren't earning enough out of it

It seems remarkable given the multi-millions sloshing around the Premier League, but in advertising circles they’re saying the world of football sponsorship is in crisis. Some of the game’s sponsors are seeing sales rise but others are wasting millions, naively thinking that football’s trendy status will help them sell any product they fancy. So what’s the secret of a good marketing campaign, and is there a downside to the advertising upsurge?

Ad agencies first began to doubt the wisdom of lobbing millions of pounds at football after Euro ’96. Eleven companies had each stumped up £3.5m to be official sponsors. They were, in ad-speak ‘major players’; Canon, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Snickers and Fujifilm among them. After the final a market research company, RSL, found that only Coke had made enough of an impact to get into the UK top ten of broadcast and sports sponsorships.

Since then there has been an angry dispute over ‘exclusivity’ between Bass, the Premier League sponsors, and Scottish Courage and Carlsberg-Tetley (Newcastle and Liverpool shirt sponsors). Bass wanted to replace the Premier League badge, which appears on the left sleeve of the players’ shirts, with a badge featuring its ‘Carling’ lager brand. This would bring them into line with Football League sponsors Nationwide who had done the same last season. Not surprisingly, rival brewers were livid – why spend a million a season advertising on a shirt that displays your rival’s name too? In a classic piece of buck passing the Premier League privately supported Bass/Carling but left the final decision to club chairmen “in consultation with their club sponsors”. The spat has yet to be resolved.

Last season’s Chelsea sponsors, Coors, have refused to renew their deal despite the exposure the FA Cup win brought. Coors are rumoured to have been particularly annoyed at the lack of exposure they gained when Vialli and Zola signed. They compared Chelsea’s low-key approach with the sight of Alan Shearer regaling the Toon army with his legendary wit while flanked by enormous inflatable Newcastle Brown bottles when he signed for Newcastle.

The ad men saw Chelsea’s slip as an example of football’s failure to understand sponsors’ needs. Paul Hawkes of Abraham Hawkes PLC recently surveyed Premier League clubs’ own marketing and concluded that they have made no “effort to understand their market… you could either say that they are incompetent, or you could say that they don’t have a great regard for their fans.” (Chelsea fans will know that better than most – even the catalogue at their club shop costs a pound.)

Are marketing analysts seriously telling us that clubs and sponsors are not flogging enough products on the back of their teams? You bet they are. Apparently the problem is that the ‘player base’ (‘team’ to the rest of us) is not being exploited effectively. To make millions essential to remain ‘major players’, clubs and sponsors must get closer to the essence of the sport. Shirt logos and billboards are not enough; the product must be seen as an integral part of the game itself. In ad men’s wet dreams kids in replica shirts say “But Dad, I’ve got to have a Coke, we’re at football,” to be told, “Alright, as soon as I’ve got my special sports beer.” Perfect, total market penetration. ‘Real’ fans become those who buy every shirt, video, bedspread they’re told to.

The importance of getting a brand as closely linked to football as possible can’t be underestimated. Coke’s TV advertising has mastered the art. Using fans (remember the blind West Ham supporter having the match described to him by his mates) they have won awards from Marketing Week who said: “Coca-Cola’s ‘for the fans’ strategy has celebrated the role of fans and has harnessed the passion they feel for the game and related it to the brand.”

Even more successful than Coke’s attempt to appear part of the game is the Littlewoods relaunch. When the National Lottery was launched in 1994 most analysts expected the whole pools market to quickly die. Betting duty on the Lottery was half the 35% that Littlewoods paid, the prizes were bigger and they had the awesomely talented Anthea Turner hosting a free weekly ten minute commercial on the BBC. The Lottery quickly took 50% of the whole pools business.

At the start of the 1996-97 season the fightback began with a £4 million advertising campaign. Instead of concentrating on the big prize winners spending their loot on speed boats and swimming pools, Littlewoods focussed on the football. There were in-jokes, like Alan Hansen moaning “Where was the defence?” as he made his way home from a great match in which a sloppy equalizer won him millions. Refs disallowing goals in order to win on the new half-time pools were also designed to appeal to fans, as opposed to punters. The ads were screened early in the week to prepare us to have our coupons ready for Thursday. When the stadium announcer makes Ian Wright miss his last minute winner the message is clear: pools + fans + players = Football.

The campaign’s been a great success, borne out by its having been copied elsewhere. Sales exceeded forecasts by 4%, giving Littlewoods their biggest upturn in their 73-year history. There is still a long way to go before sales are back to pre-Lottery levels, though the benefits of the new strategy are clear and are tucked away in Littlewoods’ bank account.

Good luck to them all you might say. The slogan ‘Eat football, sleep football, drink Coca-Cola’ might grate a little, and the Reebok/Ryan Giggs cartoon may be more than a touch surreal (not least because it shows Man City in a cup final) but no-one’s forcing us to buy the stuff, and some of the ads are very good. But there is a less healthy side to the increasing demands of sponsors that’s best illustrated by the advertising kings and marketing trend setters, Nike. They have signed a host of sporting legends to force its way way into the public consciousness, the consistent aim being to show that if you are ‘serious’ about sport you buy Nike, other stuff is for those with only a passing interest, the tight-wad armchair fans who aren’t the target market anyway.

Nike’s £5.6 billion turnover in 1996 was boosted by record profits from its fastest growing market, Europe. Buying up huge chunks of football has been its key to success this side of the Atlantic. They began with shirt sponsorship, Arsenal’s £40m ten-year deal being the latest and Brazil’s £250m ten-year contract the biggest. Incidentally, Nike are likely to have six teams with the famous Swoosh on their shirts in France next year, guaranteed to piss off official World Cup sports wear sponsors Adidas. In return Nike gets to sell the lucrative TV and creative rights to ‘tournaments’ it organizes. As reported in WSC No 128, Brazil recently appeared in Korea and Japan under the Nike world tour banner.

Fans are also entitled to be concerned about Nike’s use of individual players. The adverts themselves appear innocuous. Robbie Fowler and co playing on Hackney Marshes and poster campaigns replete with in-jokes follow the Littlewoods and Coke methods, relating players and fans love of the game to its brand. Nike expects a lot from its figureheads, however. “Our goal is to offer more than just a contract to our athletes,” says Nike America’s PR Christine Amour cryptically, “other companies can give you that, our aim is to be a little bit special, to offer extra advice to our athletes.”

Ronaldo, who has signed up with Nike for the rest of his career, was the first recipient of this ‘advice’. His delayed £18m transfer to Inter Milan stalled on Nike’s unhappiness at Inter’s sponsorship by rivals Umbro. There were even rumours that Nike wanted to buy out his contract with Barcelona and rent him out on a game-by-game basis, Rangers were one of the clubs who expressed an interest in this bizarre proposal.

Blinded by the pound signs, clubs (and even national teams) are in danger of ending up in the same boat as the fans; pawns in a multi-million pound game. Once the idea that Paolo Maldini and Eric Cantona individually provide a better return on investment than Manchester United or AC Milan collectively, then the whole system of club sponsorship might crumble.

The increasing reliance on individual stars, ironically often presented in ads as part of a multi-national dream team, has another side. Nike’s success has been built on portraying itself as somehow ‘anti-establishment’. Using sporting bad-boys began in the 70s with Nike’s use of Ilie Nastase and John McEnroe. Now it’s Eric Cantona and Ian Wright. But the idea is beginning to catch on – the FA’s recent advertising campaign featured its most regular visitor, the ubiquitous Ian Wright. “If we had used Alan Shearer or David Seaman they would have been perceived as mouthpieces,” said FA commercial director Philip Carling. Ian’s fee, incidentally, was close to the amount he’d just been fined for the Schmeichel incident.

Advertising initiatives that attempt to get under football’s skin clearly work better than the Euro 96 approach, but when spoilt brats become more ‘valuable’ than teams, players get injured in meaningless corporate jollies, and transfers are held to ransom by shoemakers it’s clear that something isn’t right. And if the bubble bursts the sponsors won’t be the ones to carry the can. Final word goes to Charlie Beauchamp, account manager at Alan Pascoe and Associates: “I don’t know how long this high rate of growth can last. The strategy on all sides is to make as much money as you can for as long as it lasts.” What a comforting thought.

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month