Michael Barnett: Before investing in football sponsorship, scout the opposition

With football sponsorship across the UK, Spain, Germany, France and Italy said to be worth nearly €4bn, it’s marketers’ responsibility to do their due diligence and figure out if it’s worth the expense.

What do Leagoo, Davanti and Utilita have in common? Aside from being brands you had never heard of before today, they all sponsor one or more Premier League teams.

They join the illustrious ranks of Marathon Bet, PCCW and Octopus Energy in aligning themselves with the cultural phenomenon that is English club football.

These nuggets of wisdom are the product of an impressively thorough piece of research on European football’s ’Super Spenders’ by sport and entertainment marketing agency CSM. It has totted up 1,769 sponsorship deals with 1,156 brands, estimated to be worth nearly €4bn, across the top competitions in England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy.

England gets by far the biggest share of that spending; €1.2bn, half a billion euros more than German clubs earn and almost twice as much as the Spanish league’s total. For that kind of money, you would think the brands involved must be – to use a phrase beloved of football fans – ‘smashing it’. But take a look through CSM’s long lists of obscure names and you begin to wonder what most of them get out of it.

READ MORE: The sponsorship model is broken – here’s how to fix it

The strategic problems mount as you move down the marketing funnel, past awareness into consideration and intent. If you have a passing interest in football, you have probably heard of the Carabao Cup and are newly aware of its Thai sponsor. However, if you’re anything like me you won’t have realised Carabao is an energy drink until you Googled it while writing this column, assuming instead that it must be either a brand of game meat or an unholy mashup of Curaçao and Caramac. (Now, there’s a cocktail waiting to be invented.)

“Ah,” I hear you cry, “but the fact you’re even talking about Carabao means the sponsorship is working.”

“Ah,” I respond, “but there are more effective, less expensive ways to expand into new markets, such as running TV ads and being available in shops.” There’s a lot less to spend on those when you’ve blown a reported £18m on the ribbons tied to English football’s third most important trophy.

What’s the ROI of football sponsorship?

It’s the investment required to achieve cut-through in football – particularly English football – that should give marketers greatest pause.

Emirates Airline might have succeeded in forging some of the strongest brand associations in the sport, but it has paid €126m for the privilege according to CSM, spanning seven deals including Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and the FA Cup. That makes it the top spender in Europe by a margin of €46m. What value, then, can Aeroflot possibly achieve from its not-insignificant €8m outlay to become Manchester United’s official airline?

READ MORE: Aeroflot looks to Skoda for inspiration as it tries to change negative perceptions

The problem is especially acute for gambling brands, which now litter the pitch like discarded pie tins, with 35 deals identified by the report across the top tier of the English game. Granted, the overlap between football fans and gamblers is substantial, meaning it seems like efficient targeting, but surely that strategic synergy is a busted flush when you’re Marathon Bet, playing against 22 direct competitors which also sponsor Premier League teams, while fighting for attention with Man United’s other 55 commercial partners.

You can hardly blame the football clubs for this state of affairs. As Arsenal’s chief commercial officer at the time Tom Fox (later an ill-fated Aston Villa CEO) told me in an interview a few years ago, if you have a full waiting list for season tickets any consultant will tell you that means you’re not charging enough. The same goes for commercial partners. If brands are lining up to touch the hem of a Premier League garment (almost literally in the case of this year’s new ‘sleeve sponsors’), which sane club commercial director would turn them away?

Marketers’ responsibility

It is marketers’ responsibility to do their due diligence and figure out if football sponsorship is worth the expense, and on current evidence it’s difficult to believe they are really doing it. The dearth of FMCG brands associated with Premier League clubs is telling, precisely because of the rigour with which these organisations must justify their marketing investments.

It would be foolish to suggest it is impossible to achieve a solid ROI from football sponsorship, but the question is whether most brands gather sufficient market intelligence on the scale of the opportunity or the competition they are up against. If you’re still in the market after all that, CSM’s report helpfully lists the properties that will become available in the next two years.

My suspicion is that the schmooze factor plays a substantial role in more than a few sponsorship decisions. That makes total sense for some brands – particularly B2B – where the opportunity to wine and dine clients, suppliers and journalists in a corporate box has an obvious ROI in the form of valuable industry relationships. But maybe, just maybe, one or two marketers see it as a free piss-up at the footy. Apropos of nothing, this seems a good time to mention I’m a Spurs fan.