Is shirt sponsorship in the internet age still a local affair?

by William Abbs

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010
 

Last month, I wrote about the kits that were on show at the Africa Cup of Nations. My enthusiasm for them was motivated purely by aesthetics and had nothing to do with Puma’s boasts about the material from which the shirts were made. The Angolan kit was my favourite because the design was striking and original (it had a picture of a black antelope over the right shoulder); any claims by Puma that the shirt boosted player mobility, or transferred sweat away from the body faster, could never impress me as much as that antelope. When you’re wearing the shirt in the pub it looks as good as it does on the pitch, but mobility worries only concern the ability to lift a pint (and if you sweat when doing so, it’s time to consult a doctor).

This time I’d like to write about club kits, in terms of their design and the sponsorship they carry.

The other day, I was pointed in the direction of a blog that features images of a selection of kits worn by teams during the first Premier League season in 1992/1993. What struck me first was how varied and ambitious shirt design was back then. The Arsenal away kit and the Norwich City home top both used yellow as a base, but the former added thick blue chevrons while the latter was speckled with green and white flashes too. The variety of collars on show was also very interesting. The laces around the neck of the Aston Villa kit would not have looked out of place on a shirt from the early 1900s, while Everton’s collar was so big it resembled one you might find on a vampire’s cloak. The 90s were, in general, an era of experimentation in terms of colour schemes and shirt features. Away kits often allowed designers the most creative freedom, but Oldham’s pale green and white change strip – jagged lines and all – should never have seen the light of day.

Manchester United’s away kit during that inaugural Premier League campaign was split into green and gold halves, reviving the colours of the club’s previous incarnation, Newton Heath. The shirt was dropped after one year, and replaced by the classic all-black strip, but green and gold are again being worn by United fans – still as a homage to the colours of Newton Heath, but now showing support for the Love United, Hate Glazer movement. United were sponsored by the electronics company Sharp in the early 1990s and it was their logo that the green and gold shirt carried. However, the black kit that replaced it began the trend for United away shirts to promote a particular Sharp product, the Sharp Viewcam. I remember such details because that kit was the first one I ever owned.

Is it ok to feel nostalgic about shirt sponsorship? Maybe not. It is peculiar how, in our keenness to wear replica shirts, we forget that we’re providing free advertising for whichever company’s name is printed on the front, not just proclaiming our support for our team. However, a Sharp Viewcam is, at least, a tangible product; you can hold the camcorder in your hands, take pictures with it, record memories. By contrast, United’s current sponsors, American International Group (AIG), are an insurance firm that few people had heard of in this country before their deal with the club was announced. Nobody can think fondly of a financial services corporation, dealing in numbers and bits of paper, but football sponsorship is increasingly dominated by partnerships between clubs and white-collar businesses. When AIG’s contract with United expires at the end of the season another American insurance company, Aon, will take over.

However, a glance through the shirts from 1992/1993 reveals an enduring, rather quaint, relationship between clubs and their sponsors. Ipswich Town, Sheffield United, and Southampton, for example, were all backed by companies from their local regions: Fisons, Laver, and Draper Tools, respectively. Fast forward to 2010, and a plethora of Premier League clubs are sponsored by web sites: Bolton, Hull, Portsmouth, Sunderland, West Ham, Wigan, and Wolves. All but one of these sites are run from locations a great distance away from the clubs whose shirts carry their brands. For example, BoyleSports.com sponsor Sunderland but are based in Ireland, while Hull’s backers, totesport.com, are a betting firm from Wigan. The exception are Portsmouth’s sponsors, Jobsite.co.uk, who are based in Hampshire. Nonetheless, of the other Premier League clubs, a further three are sponsored by local firms (Blackburn & Crown Paints, Burnley & Samuel Cooke & Co Ltd, and Stoke & Britannia). Aston Villa go even further to help their local community though; since 2008, they have supported a west Midlands children’s hospice and carried its name, Acorns, on their shirts, eschewing a commercial sponsorship deal completely.

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