Brand leverage: sporting giants

With sponsorship deals coming from further and further afield, examines the benefits to be had for brands seeking to align themselves with European sports clubs

Financial agreements between football clubs and businesses are as old as the game itself, but the deals brokered in the 21st century are in another league to the once-common associations between a club and a successful local businessman. Today’s football sponsorship deals are much more likely to have an international flavour, with many companies based in the Gulf allying themselves with major European clubs through multi-million pound agreements.

Such link-ups are fascinating examples of how brand association has become vital to business. For example, earlier this month, Etisalat renewed its agreement to be Barcelona’s ‘official international telecom partner’, despite not having any operations in Spain. So why do companies such as Etisalat, Emirates or Etihad spend so much to associate themselves with football?

Building blocks

According to Roger Duthie, Head of Sponsorships at Emirates, the answer isn’t so different from the reason why local businessmen owned football clubs decades ago, but on an international scale. “We use sponsorships to build our brand globally and to create brand awareness,” he explains. “We feel that with football, we can cut through many different cultures and markets simply because it is one of the world’s most popular sports.”

Of course, today’s game has a truly international flavour, with fans in every corner of the globe following the exploits of Europe’s top clubs. “For a company looking to build their brand internationally, the Premier League is a fantastic place,” Duthie admits. “The UK is an important market for us, and it offers us a great way to reach fans around the world.”

For the local fans of clubs associated with the Dubai-based airline, hearing such marketing terminology to describe their beloved team might cause alarm bells to ring. However, Duthie is also keen to argue that these deals can also bring a lot of benefits for these supporters. “We try to do a lot for the fans, giving them opportunities that money can’t buy – tickets, signed shirts, the chance to meet players and staff,” he suggests. “But there’s also the financial side, we’re providing the money to potentially help you win a trophy, so hopefully as a fan you can appreciate this, whether locally or internationally.”

The sheer scale of the deals involved in football club sponsorship underlines this point – Emirates paid Arsenal US$225m in December 2012 to extend their sponsorship deal until 2019, providing the club with a significant amount of cash to strengthen their squad. Whether the manager then spends that money or not is his prerogative. 

Business sense

Still, these relationships do have to work both ways, and for all the brand equity that a sponsorship deal can offer to a company, there has to be some return on investment at the end of it all, which is why some deals have raised eyebrows. Duthie admits that, regardless of the stature of a club or the associations they could bring, business decisions lie at the heart of all the activity Emirates embark upon.

“First of all, we would never get into a partnership with a club if we didn’t fly there”, he admits. “We want to fly people to London, to Paris, to Hamburg, and for them to visit Dubai from these places, so we’re using the sponsorship property for business reasons. Just like advertising, PR or digital, sponsorship is a communication tool to help us tell a story for our business in that particular market.”

So as football has grown internationally and opened its arms to investment, it seems only natural that brands from all corners of the globe would look to step in and take the opportunities to have their logos emblazoned on shirts or even integrated into the name of the stadiums in which the games take place.

And as for those supporters eager for their team to be associated with their local community, rather than a brand they barely recognise, let alone use? Well, if the link-up is managed in the right way - and helps bring the trophies, passion and pleasure the game is famous for generating - usually such doubts soon disappear.