Has football fouled up once too often?

As the sport is once again dogged by scandal, the first sponsor has broken ranks and admitted misgivings over the game’s image. With other sports offering attractive packages, football needs to grow up. By Daniel Thomas

Football has been dragged onto the front pages of newspapers in recent weeks by allegations linking players with rape, violence and drug-taking, leaving many in the sports industry wondering if the beautiful game has turned ugly.

Umbro admitted last week that recent high-profile on- and off-pitch scandals could affect its brand (MW last week). The admission surprised few, though no other sponsor has dared openly to question whether their brand values could be sullied by an association with the game. This is despite a recent national newspaper headline asking: “Are the FA’s &£25m silent sponsors just as guilty as the players?”

Umbro UK marketing manager Eddie May admits there are worries about the image of the game and its impact on his brand: “It is not brilliant for us overall. It’s not good for the image of the game. It is a question of wait and see whether allegations are substantiated.”

May says brands that perceive football as “fashionable” and are contemplating short-term links with the game might be worried about how the recent scandals could affect their image. But, he says, Umbro, as a sponsor and manufacturer, is not worried about the impact on the long-term value of its sponsorship, adding: “Our involvement is inherent. We are part and parcel of the game.”

Carlsberg-Tetley sponsorship manager Gareth Roberts also says the value of his company’s association with football has not been degraded, as the company takes a long-term view of its sponsorship. Carlsberg is one of the FA’s five “pillar sponsors, in addition to sponsoring ITV’s The Premiership; the Euro 2004 and World Cup tournaments; and Liverpool and Hibernian football clubs.

Similarly, Barclays acting director of sponsorship Nic Gault, who signed a &£57m, four-year deal with the Premier League earlier this month, says there are no regrets: “Any kind of sponsorship has to be seen from a long-term, holistic point of view. It is always going to make headlines as it is so high-profile.”

He admits there are dangers with sports sponsorship. “It is a risk-and-reward exercise. The risk is inherent in attaching your name to someone else’s brand,” he says.

Sponsors, however, are not without power to influence the game. Glenn Hoddle is said to have been sacked as England manager after Nationwide told the FA that it wanted to be distanced from his comments regarding reincarnation and the disabled.

An FA spokesman confirms that no sponsor has expressed concerns to the game’s governing body about the recent wave of scandals. Yet the current allegations, added to past incidents that have dragged the name of football through the mud, may just force more sponsors to speak out in the future if the troubles continue.

During the Seventies and Eighties, the game was plagued by hooliganism and tales of players womanising and drinking to excess. In the Nineties, the game was rocked by match-fixing allegations. More recently, defender Jonathan Woodgate was convicted of affray in a court case over an assault on Asian student Sarfraz Najeib. Lee Bowyer was cleared of all charges in the same case.

Off-pitch events reached a nadir earlier this month, when a 17-year-old girl claimed she was raped by Premiership footballers. Of lesser, but still significant, concern have been recent allegations of “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour” off the pitch by Newcastle United’s Craig Bellamy – who was fined &£750 over the incident.

Also this month, Fulham’s Luis Boa Morte and Middlesbrough’s Franck Queudrue faced FA charges for “improper conduct” and “violent behaviour” on the pitch. And this week, Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson was fined &£10,000 and given a two-match touchline ban for misconduct.

Meanwhile, Rio Ferdinand has come under attack for missing a drug test – an omission which almost sparked a strike by the English football team when Ferdinand was not included in the squad to face Turkey.

Tony Simpson, managing director of sports agency SP Active, says sponsors are never going to be happy when football is on the front, rather than the back, pages of newspapers.

He says: “I would imagine they will all be quietly concerned. If their staff were to do similar things, they would be fired immediately. It will affect how deals are done and the value of those deals.”

Simpson warns that other sports are offering attractive sponsorship opportunities: “If football carries on this way, sponsors will turn away, and that would be a disaster for the game. Other sports such as rugby have been well marketed to sponsors from a sound base, and rugby is being boosted by a successful World Cup.”

Simpson says that football remains a natural fit for brands with a younger target market: “Youth-oriented sponsors won’t be fazed by this, but the more staid companies might be. Ben Sherman, for instance, isn’t going to be worried but a financial services company might wonder if rugby is not a cleaner fit.”

Chris Meredith, sponsorship director at agency Lexus, agrees that football risks alienating the family-oriented brands it has spent so long trying to woo.

He says: “Football has spent countless millions and many years making football a more family-friendly sport. It is in danger of undoing all that work. It is this family audience that attracts the big-money sponsors.”

Meredith adds the first signs of change are likely to be seen in contract negotiations. He says companies will insist on detailed exit clauses in contracts at all levels of sponsorship.

He says players now know that an ill-advised night out could cost them millions in personal endorsement fees; clubs will have to teach players that it could also affect their playing career.

Ben Wells, a sponsorship consultant at sports agency Red Mandarin, agrees that a harder line needs to be taken with football players in order to improve the reputation of the game.

Wells calls for a stronger hand from the football authorities and the clubs. “It needs strong leadership. The clubs too often indulge and pander to the players, as they are multi-million pound assets. Sponsors need to be reassured that football is going to keep its house in order.”

The FA already seems to be heeding the warnings: Rio Ferdinand is expected to be used as an example of a sterner stance – and football’s global governing body, FIFA, has said that it will intervene if the FA is too lenient.

Football will always be a desirable sponsorship opportunity for many brands. It has enviable viewing figures and an unsurpassed global reach for a domestic sport. But sponsorship potential might be curtailed unless football can keep the excitement on the pitch. And that might not be easy, says Wells: “Football has always had scandal – where there are young lads with lots of money and big egos, there will always be trouble.”

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