The beautiful game - football sponsorship

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The football season with all its advertising opportunities has arrived again. Ben McFarland weighs up the pros and cons of football sponsorship.In...

The football season with all its advertising opportunities has arrived again. Ben McFarland weighs up the pros and cons of football sponsorship.

In what seems an eternity for football fanatics and a criminally brief respite for others, the football season is once again upon us after a three-month break.

And with football and beer still occupying a place in the heart of nearly every male, regardless of age, a number of brands are eager to get involved in the forthcoming season.

However, the cost of entry into the lucrative world of top-flight football sponsorship has continued to rise as clubs struggle to meet players' wage demands and gargantuan transfer fees.

With the stakes raised both on and off the pitch, the summer interval has seen some significant changes. Firstly, Carling has given way to the financial might of Barclaycard as title sponsors of the Premiership. With its future direction remaining unclear, the brand was unable and unwilling to match the Premiership's £48m asking price and instead decided to turn its attentions to the world of music.

Another brewer to feel the pinch was Greene King, which after six years sponsoring Ipswich Town, five of which were in the less glamorous Division One, has been replaced by TXU, a French electricity company which has invested more than £2m in a three-year deal.

Having defied the expectations of those who forecasted a swift return to Division One last season, Ipswich Town finished in fifth position in the Premiership and in doing so clinched a lucrative UEFA Cup spot.

Unfortunately, Greene King became a victim of the team's unanticipated success and the regional brewer just couldn't compete with the spending power of companies eager to associate themselves with Ipswich's new pan-European profile.

Despite Greene King's withdrawal, there will still be a real ale presence in the Premiership when it kicks off on August 18 after Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries (W&DB) announced a two-year deal to sponsor Derby County.

Marston's Pedigree, Wolves' top-selling flagship ale brand, will replace EDS, the communications company, as the club's main sponsor.

Despite the threat of a £485m takeover, the Midlands brewer has paid between £350,000 and £400,000 a year, although that figure could increase, depending on Derby's performance on the pitch.

"Unfortunately, there was no mention of a discount if they fail to live up to expectations next season," said W&DB spokesman Jeremy Eaton. The brewer is looking to both cement its links with its regional heartland and raise its national profile through the new deal.

"Something like 25 to 30 per cent of our sales are from Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Lancashire and sponsorship of Derby County was an excellent opportunity for us," said Jeremy. "Also, Derby wanted a nationwide premium brand to match their premium status and Marston's was a perfect fit."

So what do W&DB and other brands get in return for their investment? Well, changes to broadcasting agreements next season mean that sponsors will receive greater visibility from unprecedented TV exposure.

Sky has been joined on pay TV by ITV Digital, while ITV's £183m three-year deal with the Premier League means there will be more footie on terrestrial TV than ever before.

In addition to its Saturday evening highlights programme, ITV will be showing further coverage on Sundays, an additional midweek highlights programme as well as repeat programming on ITV2 and the ITV Sport Channel. Throw some online exposure into the equation and that's an awful lot of footie.

One brand that has reaped the rewards of team sponsorship is Strongbow, which sponsors Leeds United in the English Premiership and Heart of Midlothian in the Scottish Premier League. Last year, brand owner Bulmers paid £5m to put its name to a young Leeds United team for three years as part of a major marketing drive for its flagship brand. Strongbow's ascendancy into The Publican Newspaper's top 10 brands last year coincided with Leeds United's highly successful European campaign, when they reached the Champions League semi-final. A European sports sponsorship magazine estimated that Strongbow's deal with Leeds United is now worth £15m following the team's achievements last season.

"The high profile and status gained by our link with one of the most exciting teams in Europe and the Premiership is worth its weight in gold to us," said Bulmers spokesman George Thomas.

"Strongbow is now developing as a global brand and is expanding in Europe all the time," added George. "There are huge benefits from the sponsorship deal that we hadn't initially thought about as the deal was primarily to raise the brand profile in the UK. However, the exposure in the Champions League and next year in the UEFA Cup will help us exploit the worldwide opportunity even further."

In the UK, Strongbow enjoyed 10 per cent growth last year but in the Yorkshire region volume sales of Strongbow soared by 38 per cent.

However, football sponsorship is not without its pitfalls and last year's high-profile trial of two Leeds United players, Johnathon Woodgate and Lee Bowyer, brought the kind of publicity that Strongbow could have well done without.

"It was a matter of great concern to us but we made it clear throughout that we were satisfied with the way the club was dealing with it and obviously left the disciplining of players to the club. We are sponsoring the club, not individual players," said George.

Another danger is that by lending one's name to a particular team, brands run the risk of eradicating themselves from the drinking repertoire of fans from rival clubs.

Given the choice, it is unlikely that diehard Arsenal fans will choose Holsten Pils ahead of other lager brands, while it will be interesting to see how the controversial transfer of England defender Sol Campbell from one side of North London to the other will affect sales of the Mexican lager, Sol.

Several years ago, in an attempt to neutralise the fierce tribal rivalry between Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers, McEwans decided to hedge its bets and sponsored both teams.

Another way to overcome this problem is to incorporate a club sponsorship into a broader commitment to the game as a whole.

Carlsberg's sponsorship of Liverpool and Hibernian is part of a wider international commitment to soccer that stretches from its association with grass-roots football, in the shape of the Carlsberg International Pub Cup and FA Vase, to its status as the official sponsor of the England football team at international level.

Iain Paton, director of lager brands at Carlsberg-Tetley, said: "Eighty-five per cent of males aged 18 to 34 state football as their number one interest and we believe that sponsorship is one of the best ways of building brand empathy with that particular target audience.

"We want to be seen as the brand that's involved in the beautiful game from the international stage right through to grass-roots level and now Carling has dropped its sponsorship of the Premier League, Carlsberg can become the key brand when it comes to football."

Drinks companies will also be aware that the pub trade is set to play an increasingly important role when it comes to watching football.

Whether it's Carlsberg's nationwide Probaball concept or more tailor-made promotions like Holsten's "Hit the Bar" competition, there is every opportunity via in-outlet promotions to pull in customers.

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