When considering what brands to approach for sponsorship, brand values are a crucial ingredient for successful sponsorship. Football clubs, in particular, must be careful when aligning with brands who do not share similar values as the potential reaction to such deals can have far-reaching consequences and usually serve to widen the gap between board and fans. Without these shared values, football club-brand partnerships are susceptible to failure as the following three cases demonstrate.
Newcastle United & Wonga
One of the key issues at the heart of Newcastle fans’ disenchantment with Mike Ashley’s ownership dates back to 2012, when Wonga agreed a four-year £24m sponsorship deal with the club. Despite the brand making a promising start with the fans by returning the stadium name to St James Park as part of the deal, Wonga’s sponsorship of the club never achieved their aim of forging a reputation as a reputable company. As soon as the deal was agreed, the brand received an onslaught of criticism from fans, MPs and media commentators. This was followed by a stinging attack on the brand by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2013. The following year, Newcastle fans successfully lobbied the brand to remove their logo from children’s replica kits. Finally, during the climax of the 2015 league season, Wonga’s £40m financial losses were openly celebrated by fans on social media which capped a bad year for the brand when PR and branding agency, Aberfield Communications, labelled them the worst for fan engagement in the Premier League.
For sponsorship to be successful, both parties must have shared values. In Newcastle and Wonga’s case, it is clear the brand values of both organisations diverge significantly. Newcastle United is known for its ambition and integrity coupled with a passionate, loyal fan base. Wonga, on the other hand, has encountered numerous controversies since its incorporation in 2006 including the chasing of customers with fake law firms and targeting vulnerable individuals with high-interest short-term loans. Positive initiatives such as investment in the club’s academy and free ticket giveaways on Twitter have consequently not swayed fans towards a positive perception of the brand.
Bolton Wanderers & Quickquid
Another football club that has encountered issues with their shirt sponsor in recent years is Bolton Wanderers who signed a sponsorship deal with payday lender Quikquid in May 2013. However, by June 2013 the deal was terminated.
The £500K shirt deal almost immediately came under scrutiny from fans, who managed to amass 1900 signatures for a petition objecting to the deal. Their objections were upheld when the club decided to renege on the deal after a month. Bolton South East MP, Yasmin Qureshi, commented at the time: “It’s completely wrong. These companies prey on the vulnerable and they should be illegal.” After a month of backlash, the Bolton Wanderers board succumbed with technology firm Fibrlec eventually replacing the payday lenders on the front of the club’s shirt. Labour MPs Chris Evans and Stella Creasy applauded the move with fans agreeing that the sponsorship was not in keeping with Wanderer’s image as a community-based “family club”.
Bolton’s response to criticism of the deal differs markedly from Newcastle United, who, despite receiving a backlash over the Wonga deal, kept the brand as sponsor despite the unpopularity with fans. In Bolton’s case, the Quickquid sponsorship failed not only because of a lack of shared values, but the sum involved was low enough to prompt the board into action. If it had been worth the seven-figure sum as in Newcastle’s case, the deal most likely would have had greater success.
FC Barcelona & Qatar Foundation
In 2010, FC Barcelona agreed their first ever corporate shirt sponsor by signing a £25m 5-year deal with the Qatar Foundation. The deal was signed amid a period in which Barcelona’s debt had climbed to £370m, necessitating a deal that was the most lucrative shirt sponsorship in football history at the time. Despite the Qatar Foundation’s commitment to education rights in the Middle East as a non-profit body, the sponsorship was met with opposition. FC Barcelona fans accused the club of “selling the shirt” which had refused revenue from a corporate shirt sponsor for 113 years. Qatar still remains on the shirt today but as Qatar Airways, following an activation of a clause in the sponsorship agreement. However, its presence divides opinion. Sandro Rosell, the former President who signed the deal, resigned in 2013 partially as a result of its unpopularity.
The Barcelona-Qatar relationship had all the hallmarks of a successful sponsorship, yet, this never occurred. Despite the Qatar Foundation’s commitment to a virtuous cause, the association with Qatar, an absolutist monarchy, contrasts with the “People’s Club” philosophy. This refers to the fact Barcelona is a democratic club, owned by the fans, who are used to voting on key decisions, unlike employees from the Qatar Foundation. Furthermore, the association with Qatar’s unpopular World Cup bid was another factor that did not help foster a positive relationship.
The success of football club sponsorship is underpinned by strong shared values. Therefore, clubs must consider a brand or organisation’s past history and organisational makeup when searching for sponsorship. Regardless of whether a brand’s future activities have sound principles, past associations and controversies will skew fan and media perception. As a result, it is imperative they work with fan groups to negate any issues that may arise from pursuing deals with controversial sponsors.