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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Hymers

Jersey Sponsorship is dead. Long live Experience sponsorship.

Updated: Mar 31, 2023

How did the football jersey get from this:

Classic, traditional, steadfast design, all about the club crest.

To this:

There are no words. Shame on you Mjällby AIF in Sweden

The short answer is the Germans. The long answer is that it all started in 1973 in the German Bundesliga when good old Eintracht Braunschweig voted to remove their club crest in favour of the sponsored Jaegermeister logo to get around league regulations for sponsorship advertising. This was football’s Wuhan moment. #facepalm

The guilty party that ruined it for everyone and killed a deer.

Jersey sponsorship made its debut in the U.K. 3 years later. On January 21st, 1976, Kettering Tyres appeared on the jerseys of their hometown team when Kettering Town played Bath City in the Southern League. Outrageous.

Whilst the crests, thankfully, returned, money talks, and shirt sponsorship has stuck literally like the proverbial shit to a blanket. Developing into a relationship with football that has both blessed it with untold riches and plagued it with a seemingly ever-increasing drive to commercialize and squeeze every ounce of profit regardless of consequence from the eleven men and women on the pitch.

Despite the world having moved on since the seventies, this mode of brand exposure through static, lifeless, and dull signage has changed little. Clinging on to the business model like a stubborn barnacle everyone pretends isn’t there because it’s always been there and it pays nicely and upfront.

But the reality, when considered in the context of rapidly changing technology, lifestyle, engagement, community, and media consumption, is that this mdoe of jersey sponsorship is archaic, immeasurable, ineffective and in fact, devalues the very value it is trying to take advantage of. Namely the sense of connection and belonging felt between fans and their beloved clubs and the sport itself that merchandise provides.

To start to question this mode of sponsorship let’s firstly, at a basic level, consider this: On any given match day 50% of the audience is potentially negatively associating with the brand on your jersey because you are the opposition. Over a season in a league of 20 teams, that’s 95% negative association to your brand. No one talks about this. Arguably this leads you down the path of concluding that sponsorship of a sports team is indeed a bit silly. But, in fairness, there is that 5% and a much wider, more neutral audience that can of course, given the right access, relationship, demographic, psycho-graphic, gender, location, lifestyle, and behavior, provide a lot of value for a sponsor if properly activated. The point it, real sponsorship value relies on first hand data and actually knowing your fans more than anything, but we’ll get to that.

What’s questionable is how having your logo slapped across the front of a football jersey making it look shit and pissing off the 5% of fans left who you had sincerely hoped associated positively, helps that. So now its 100%.

To prove it’s value though, there are multiple firms, mostly who help to sell these sponsorships, that conjure up magical convoluted metrics that tell you your brand being seen for a fraction of a millisecond, half blurred, and behind a streakers’ naked backside is worth $0.034c per "eyeball" x2 per fan. Multiplying this by every time your brand appears on the telly, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok using fancy "AI" technologies that objectively count and show you the eyeballs and automate the wallet extraction process helps sponsors know they’re getting subjective value for their money. Sounds like bullshit right?

Purely exposure-based sponsorship and slapping any old brand on your kit doesn’t really work. Any honest expert and research will tell you that. We know this. In today’s hyper-connected, uber-sensitive world, appearing static lifeless, limp, and sweaty on the font of a kit leaves a brand open to a barrage of abuse for ruining the jersey with their ugly, meaningless logo, devoid of the ability to explain, contextualize or build their relationship to the club and unable to directly connect or really leverage what matters most, enhancing the experience for fans.

The good news is that this questionable practice is being challenged on various fronts. We’re observing a distinct shift in attitude towards jersey sponsorship that I believe, given the development of better technology-driven options for clubs and sponsors, will result in its abolition. Not only because it’s ugly and ruins the single most important symbol of connection and belonging between fan, club, and player, but because it simply doesn’t deliver value or make sense in today’s world anymore.

Firstly, we’re starting to see kits and clubs dip their toes into limited edition sponsor-less kits as 3rd, 4th or even 5th kits (forget about sustainability that's a whole other topic covered in other blog posts). Manchester City’s 125th Anniversary jersey in 2019 kit being a shining example of what a football kit could, should, and used to be. No sponsors, just the club crest & the club colours, albeit with a tonal PUMA logo. Numbers were limited, but fans ate it up, I wonder why?

KDB is proven to make more assists without a sponsor on his shirt.

Chelsea also dropped a 4th kit in 2019 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their first FA Cup win. This did feature sponsors but they were tonal, AKA a pointless expense, and it was only used in a single game. Though fleeting, this even inspired a fan to create kit concepts that explored what traditional jerseys would look like on today’s players, check them out here and read the comments. Wouldn’t that be a dream.

Look at their faces. Pretty sure they're not wearing pants.

Most excitingly though and again in 2019, Paddy Power dropped this cracker of a groundbreaking campaign called #saveourshirt with Huddersfield. They released a ghastly and exaggerated logo on the jersey which immediately enraged fans the world over only to reveal that in fact, they were doing the opposite. The plan all along was that Paddy Power would “proudly un-sponsor Huddersfield Town” because “we know our place and its not on your shirt.

Someone in their marketing department gets it. I salute you.

It might sound grand and serious and game-changing but - although you could make it all of those things - save our shirt is actually just a common-sense call for sponsors to stop bastardizing football shirts and return them to the fans. That’s it.

Paddy power rolled this out to other clubs they sponsored and have truly and importantly shown that sponsors can actually deliver more value by being off the jersey than they ever could on it. For betting sponsors its an almost prescient move given whats expected in terms of bans on betting sponsors.

See what they did there? huh? huh?

Realistically though this tactic, even executed perfectly, is too bold a move to scale into the largest leagues and clubs in the world. They are far too reliant on the guaranteed up-front cash a front of jersey sponsorship brings in. The average premier league shirt sponsorship tops 11 million pounds. So we've got a bit of convincing to do in order to do things differently.

That being said, all of these examples amount to the rumblings of real change ahead and set a precedent that’s awakening a new way of thinking about what sponsorship means and how it should be executed. Clubs are also starting to offer fans the option to buy sponsorless kits, sometimes because they don’t have a sponsor by the time the kit is produced and sometimes because it’s just the right thing to do, usually the former but hey it's a start.

We also see that alcohol, gambling, and sometimes energy drink sponsors are left off youth kits, they’re too young to partake in such vices and all the caffeine drives the parents nuts, so best just to leave it off it seems. Thank the lord for some sense prevailing in this space. La Liga in Spain recently banned gambling sponsors leaving several teams without a sponsor on the jersey. Muy Bueno amigos. This begs the question though of whether fast food, fossil fueled industries, state sponsors, crypto Ponzi schemes, and even social media companies should ethically be allowed to ravage club jersey fronts, sleeves & backs. Who determines what is a lesser evil? Is sitting on youtube for 8 hours a day or eating only cheeseburgers any better than having a punt on the odd horse race or football match? Ponder that for a second.

We're back. Counter to this though we’re also seeing some worrying new trends in sponsorship. Firstly, American sports, who have so valiantly avoided the traps of merchandise sponsorship have begun to fall, with the NBA now allowing small utterly pointless sponsors on their jerseys. Hopefully, this trend will be quashed before it spreads too far. Secondly, we’re seeing Crypto fan tokens like Socios plastering their crap logo on the front of Valencia and Inter Milan jerseys to name a few. This is somewhat baffling as a digitally based, supposedly cutting edge business, that constantly espouses their unwavering support for the voice of the fan, goes and takes the most old school approach imaginable to making themselves known to fans. By ruining a perfectly good jersey. Hey Socios, if you’re out there, this is not cool and it’s particularly daft. Your'e literally pissing off the very fans who you're trying to convince need your controversial tokens. Lastly, there’s also the new PUMA 3rd kits, make up your own mind, again, read the comments.

Ultimately, to fix this situation we must find a way to get back to the traditional value of the jerseys whilst simultaneously enabling the modern realities of the business of football and sport. It must be recognized and acknowledged that sponsors of clubs and the game are a big part of what allows clubs to have the best players, facilities, and performances and fans to experience the sport how they do. If sponsor-less jerseys are truly take off and we are to rid our beloved kits of this decades-long scourge, the value needs to be seen to be shifted or transferred elsewhere. To really effect a change in attitude there needs to be a viable, comparable, and if possible superior alternative for clubs and sponsors to deliver value to partners.

This is where we get back to the point around data and truly knowing your fans.

We live and support our teams in a digital and hyper-connected world yet it seems that we’re more disconnected than ever. For fans, football has turned into an overlapping mess of a patchwork of channels and touchpoints that scatter the experience across a loosely connected network of platforms and entities.

The clubs no longer own the interface to their own fans. Communities live on social media platforms that parade themselves as bastions of sporting values, access, and togetherness when in fact they’re the opposite. They’re advertising platforms, designed and built for that purpose. They take no responsibility for the racism and abuse that abounds on their watch. They make clubs slaves to algorithms and essentially pay to talk to their own fans without the ability to truly connect, understand and build relationships with them. Clubs just post ads from their sponsors all day every day and throw valuable content into a sea of discontent. Football, and sport in general, has well and truly drunk the kool-aid when it comes to “social.” But hey, go get those “followers”!

Authenticity has been lost and fans and clubs find themselves at a crossroads with some big decisions to make and existential challenges ahead of them in a post-COVID-19 world. Who are our real fans? How do you deliver real and relevant value to fans and sponsors? How do build authentic relationships and safer communities? How do we be more sustainable?

These things may not sound like they have much to do with shirt sponsorship but they do. They all highlight just how irrelevant a logo on the front of a shirt, sleeve, or training kit is to the reality of the world we live in today. The advent of the farcical European Super League has also shown how important it is for clubs to listen to, understand, and have a direct relationship with fans. Tradition, history, transparency, communication, connection, and a sense of belonging matter more than ever. They’re fundamental. They’re the foundation of what has made football the commercial juggernaut it is but they have been left to atrophy.

For a sponsorship to be valuable it needs to be relevant and it needs to pay into, not come at the expense of, these sporting values. People and fans need to know what that business is, what they do, how they do it, how it can help them, help their club, if they do it responsibly and with the environment in mind, and, most importantly they need a way to interact and engage with them.

No static logo on the front of any shirt can do all or any of that.

The answer requires clubs to shift back to being clubs again. Owning their interface to fans. Providing and owning safe, authentic digital community spaces where players and real fans can engage without fear of abuse and racism. Creating a platform for sponsors to embed themselves uniquely into the fan’s experience by enabling that engagement and those experiences. Ultimately, for sponsors, the aim should be to be engaging and dynamic on the screen of the little black box in every fan’s pocket, not lifeless on a jersey.

The answer is to sponsor the experience, the community not the product.

At Connected Fanatics, we’re doing our bit to make this a reality by helping clubs to connect their most meaningful symbol of belonging for fans, their jersey, to an exclusive digital experience.

We turn football jerseys and merchandise into a digital access point opened by simply tapping your phone on the club crest to get an experience that is exclusive to fans who own the jersey.

We create a space where the club, through its merchandise has a direct connection to fans. Where the value of the jersey can shift to what it enables rather than just what the current design iteration looks like. Where sponsors can embed themselves in the very fabric of what it means to be a fan rather than the fabric of the jersey that symbolizes it.

Connected Jersey demo for the Major League Rugby team the LA Giltinis

It means merchandise can move from being a siloed business to be fully integrated into the club’s digital ecosystem. That clubs can provide sponsors with a way to truly add value to fans and build rapport in a way that is not straight-up advertising but true experiential engagement and enablement. Through our content Management system and data analytics dashboards, the most engaged, loyal, and responsive fans can be identified and rewarded and sponsors can provide them with true money can’t buy experiences that drive value in an authentic way. We shift the conversation from sponsoring products for exposure to sponsoring experiences for brand love and real and relevant engagement.

We by no means profess to be the silver bullet for jersey sponsorship but we’re seeing that things are changing, questions are being asked of the archaic model around sponsorship and merchandise in general, and that solutions must be provided. Connected Fanatics is going a long way to providing that viable alternative through enabling a new business model for merchandise and sponsorship that is rooted in tradition and what it means to be a club, but with a razor-sharp focus on a technology-driven future. With this approach, and working with our expert partners Avery Dennison we believe we can make the sporting product, service, and experience better for everyone. Better for fans, clubs, players, and sponsors alike.

If you’re a club, kit supplier, or sponsor, who wants to think differently and have fun doing it, hit us up:

Thanks for reading this far :)


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