FA seeks to regain football’s top title

Ever since the launch of the Premiership, the Football Association – the game’s governing body – has lost out. But a new campaign, using soccer bad-boy Ian Wright, is aiming to redress the balance.

Two weeks ago, Ian Wright was fined 15,000 by the Football Association for misconduct. Last week, he was accused of verbally abusing a thalidomide linesman and the FA was called in to investigate. Yet this week one of the bad boys of British football will be revealed as the star of the first corporate branding campaign the FA has run in its 134-year history.

The controversial Arsenal and England striker will star in a series of four press ads during the next six months in a campaign designed to improve the FA’s image, explain what it does and attract commercial sponsors. The FA – seen as epitomising the old-boy network of British football – has lost out to

the Premier League both in commercial and prestige terms; this campaign is the first sign the FA is fighting back.

Justifying the use of Wright, FA commercial director Philip Carling says: “Corporate ads are often seen as po-faced. If we had used Alan Shearer or David Seaman they would be perceived as mouthpieces for the FA. No one can accuse Wright of being that. He is his own man. People think, ‘He didn’t have to say that, so there must be some truth to what he is saying’.”

The ads were created by advertising agency McCann-Erickson. The first execution, which breaks tomorrow (Thursday) to coincide with Sunday’s Charity Shield match at Wembley, focuses on the FA’s heritage. Wright is styled as a turn-of-the-century footballer.

The other three will run on the eve of England internationals and stress the work the FA is doing with youth, women’s and amateur football. These executions see Wright, first, dressed as a little boy complete with an afro hairstyle; and second, as a pot-bellied grey-haired old man. The third ad is being kept firmly under wraps.

Significantly, the FA three lions badge, immortalised on record last year by Skinner and Baddiel, features prominently at the bottom of each ad. The FA is working on plans to exploit the badge in its merchandising efforts, which could range from clothing to bikes and toys.

Ads will run in the Financial Times, the Telegraph, The Economist, and World Soccer Magazine to target opinion-formers unclear about the body’s broad and complex remit. Spend is estimated at only 300,000, but sources at the FA say if the England team qualifies for next year’s World Cup in France, the consumer merchandising campaign could be taken on to television.

“We ran focus groups centring on our image,” says Carling. “Two things came out. The associations with the England team are very positive. However, as a body, the FA is thought to be a bit dull. The point of this campaign is to bring our image closer to that of the team.”

The FA’s remit covers the game from top to bottom. It includes 11,000 leagues, 43,000 clubs, 105,000 teams, and a total of 2.5 million players, who play the game at every level across the country.

But it has been overshadowed by the five-year-old Premier League, whose deal with BSkyB means it’s on television at least 60 times a season and receives a massive amount of media coverage. In contrast, the FA, through England games and the FA Cup, gets little live TV exposure.

Graham Walker, a commercial executive at the Football League, says: “There is some element of not wanting to be left behind by the Premier League. It makes sense to build on the three lions symbol, which became famous in Euro 96 last year. Until then, the average person in the street did not know the symbol or what it stood for. We have the same problem with our symbol. All the glamour is attached to club logos.”

A director of football at one of the UK’s top sports agencies is more forthright about the FA’s decision to start a branding campaign. “The Premier League is running away with football and the FA is peeved at this,” he says. “The FA wants to close the gap, but it has no chance, because it’s the Premier League that has the regular supply of big games and big stars that people want to see.”

Carling is more circumspect about competition with the Premier League. “We have to congratulate the Premiership on a superb launch, especially as in the early days it was not certain it would be a success. It has been good for football as a whole. But we have to blow our trumpet.”

The FA is understood to be in talks with Littlewoods over whether it will continue its FA Cup sponsorship, which ends at the close of this season. The deal was worth 14m over four years in 1994, and a source close to the FA says it is looking for “significantly more” this time.

The FA’s Total Football Group, a group of 12 companies which sponsor games at Wembley, also ends next season. And Carling is looking to expand the package – raising more money along the way – to cover more than simply corporate hospitality.

The ever-energetic Wright is famous for playing every game as if it were his last. The FA is trying to harness that aggression, which has often landed him in trouble, and put it to good use. But if it is to wrest “ownership” of football away from the Premier League, it may need more aggression than even Wright can provide.

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