Sponsor Evolution | Premier League
Football is an ever-evolving sport that feeds off the cultural and economic norms of the time. The game has come leaps and bounds since the eighties, an era with minimal commercialism, ageing terraces and players wearing very short shorts. It was also a decade when English football was not at its finest, a factor that may have deterred many potential commercial sponsors. Fast forward and ‘the beautiful game’ has now seemingly been swamped by betting companies, from Betway at West Ham United to Sportsbet.io at Southampton.
How did we get here? Take a step back, and by analysing the last few decades, it's clear there are commercial genres which dominated the football landscape for a period of time before the next wave moves in.
Alcohol & Tech
A match made in heaven between Liverpool and Carlsberg | Photo credit: @throwbackfitbatops
If you turn your mind back to football kits in the early nineties, when the Premier League was finding its feet in the new multi-channel TV age, you'll probably envision the Carlsberg logo emblazed on Liverpool's kit, Holton at Spurs, TDK at Crystal Palace, Sharp at Man Utd and JVC on Arsenal’s iconic red and white shirt. Oh and how could we forget Newcastle United's Brown Ale sponsor in what was a great period for the north-east club (a match made in heaven).
This was an era dominated by alcohol and consumer technology companies, with four alcohol deals and six consumer electronic deals at the start of the 1992-93 season. The pace of technological growth really picked up in the nighties, leading to various big-name brands using Premier League football as a means to get reach and recognition in an increasingly crowded market.
Consumer technology companies sponsored half of the league's clubs in 1995-96 (the league size was reduced from 22 to 20 teams). By 2000 this had fallen to just three companies and in the last decade, only one company in this category signed itself up to a Premier League side. The decline of these brands in top tier English football went hand in hand with the struggles they faced on the open market. The rise of the internet, fast-paced innovation and competition meant their days of market domination were soon eclipsed. Brands such as JVC, which specialised in VHS recorders, merged with Kenwood in 2008 whilst Sharp reported heavy losses of $4.7 billion in 2012 and has seen its market share decline globally, specifically in North America.
Alcohol's relationship with football had been intertwined for over a century, and at a time when disposable incomes were increasing, thanks to a growing economy, alcohol brands used the sport as a vehicle to promote their products to a young and increasingly affluent demographic. As the nineties rolled on their presence at the pinnacle of our game started to dwindle at club level. Huge TV contracts from the likes of Sky and rising player wages meant sponsoring a Premier League team become a lot more expensive as the decade progressed. New brands were entering the market with more buying power and alcohol brands were exploring new, cheaper ways to reach their audiences without shelling out a significant proportion of the annual marketing budget on one club. From a morality point of view, people began to question the link between football and violence, fuelled by alcohol.
You'll now find alcohol sponsorship at a more corporate level, with Budweiser sponsoring the FA Cup and Heineken being a top tier sponsor in the Champions League. Chang Beer in 2016 was the last alcohol sponsor found on a Premier League side (Everton) and it remains unlikely we'll see another one anytime soon
With alcohol and tech brands disappearing from our beloved shirts, a huge gap in the market was left and the dice was then cast, ushering in a new era of sponsorship.
Gambling, Finance and Automobiles
Car brand Chevrolet have been on United's books since 2012.
The big growth in gambling companies sponsoring Premier League clubs' shirts came after The Gambling Act 2005, which allowed them to advertise on television and radio (although Fulham were one of the pioneers, with Betfair sponsoring the West London club in 2003).
With the rise of the internet, access to easy credit, and the strong global appeal of the Premier League, it was no surprise to see the gambling industry imbed itself with the sport on a commercial level. It's gone from strength to strength, with a wide variety of betting sponsors at the pinnacle of the English game. So, dominant have they become, it's fuelled growing concerns of the negative affects this could have on wider society, such as addiction to gambling, especially in the younger generation. Technological advances have now made betting frictionless, with fans able to bet and watch football at the same time through smartphones. For many fans, betting is way to make the game more exciting, and improvements in technology have made it all the more appealing, such as the early cash out feature. So entrenched is gambling in football, that half-time ads on TV will show up to date odds that reflect the in-game score, driving more fans to bet. The gambling industry has been completely normalised in English football culture, from fans to the clubs and the leagues themselves (receiving £110 million in sponsorship and commercial agreements annually). During the 2018-19 season, nine out of the twenty Premier League teams were sponsored by a gambling company, worth an estimated £50 million to the clubs. The strong appeal for English football abroad has even seen foreign gambling brands splash their logo on club shirts, with foreign branding added to their English equivalent at Crystal Palace and Newcastle United (ManBetX and Fun88). Interestingly enough, Fun88 does not have a UK licence but instead uses a white label arrangement with a third-party technology provider to operate in the UK. It's effectively a loophole in the legal system. Whilst not every club has a gambling sponsor on their shirt, it's important to note that virtually every club in the Premiership has a gambling partner as part of their wider sponsorship portfolio. This might also include a category for automotive brands or consumer products such as Manscape at West Ham United. Recognisable gambling brands such William Hill are partnered with Spurs whilst Yabo Sports are tied to Manchester United. Some clubs even have up to five gambling partners on board, such as Leicester City who have an official betting partner (Yabo Sports), a training top partner (Parimatch) and other partners on the books (Bet365, W88 & Betway). Betting and football on a commercial level now very much go hand in hand. The financial sector is another category that's increased its presence in the Premier League. You might remember that Norwich City were sponsored by the Peterborough Building Society for three seasons in the mid nighties and now a host of financial brands are involved. From Standard Chartered at Liverpool, to American Express at Brighton (who also sponsor the stadium), USG at Sheffield United to AIA at Spurs, the financial sectors presence has very much been felt.
The Automotive sector has also been making a comeback (who remembers Peugeot at Coventry City?), with used online car dealer Cazoo sponsoring both Aston Villa and Everton in a rare double club sponsorship strategy this season. Man Utd have had automotive giants Chevrolet on their books for the last seven years, Chelsea also opened their doors to the automobile industry, with Hyundai becoming their sleeve partners and Yokohama Tyres being their main shirt sponsor for five years (downsized to their official global tyre company partner going into the 2020-21 season).
With the government now keen to push for further regulation of the betting industry, it's plausible to think we could be soon hitting a peak. The oversaturation of betting companies, even in Championship and below, is a concern to many, especially with gambling addiction rates increasing. Clubs should expect to come under more scrutiny from fans and society in general, and question whether they want to be associated with an industry that's increasingly receiving negative publicity. So, who'll be sponsoring our Premier League sides over the next decade? Will gambling, finance and automobile companies continue to dominate the scene, or will they pave the way to a new breed of sponsors in this post Covid-19 world. Only time will tell.
Written by Richard Tester