While the exact role of corporate sponsorship in football remains hotly disputed, there is no doubt that leading brands invest a significant amount of capital into the sport on an annual basis. This enables teams to remain profitable and compete with rival clubs, although the growing influence of commercial brands and financial backers in football is being treated with serious cynicism by supporters on a global scale.
This issue is prevalent throughout the European game, and English clubs in particular have experienced a number of brand related controversies in recent years. From the renaming of historic stadiums to structural changes that take place within the hierarchy of a club, there is a fear that commercial entities are set to assume control of the nation’s favourite sport and alienate fans from across the country.
Considering the Ethics Behinds Sponsorship and Multi-club Ownership Rules
This issue came to a head in the UK recently, after it was announced that Premier League club Hull were to have their name changed for the first time in its 104 year history. This was a decision taken by club owner Assem Allam, who wishes to apply the name ‘Hull Tigers’ as part of a commercial re-branding exercise. The suffix ‘Association Football Club’ is also being removed, much to the anger of the clubs fans who feel that the teams sporting identity is being undermined. Here we have an embodiment of the cultural clash that is currently effecting football, as the diametrically opposed worlds of working-class sport and commercial branding collide in an explosive fashion.
This is the first name change of its type in the Football League, although it follows a natural evolution that have seen large brand involvement, sponsorship and finance become increasingly immersed with sport. This has seen numerous grounds and stadiums renamed in the UK, as Coventry City, Arsenal, Manchester City, Bolton and Derby have all dispensed with years of tradition in the quest to boost profits and remain competitive in their respective aims. This is troubling loyal and long-serving fans, who feel as though their beloved clubs are losing touch with the local community.
While club ownership is protected by restrictive guidelines that at least partially respect the integrity of the game, however, the involvement of commercial sponsors is largely unregulated. So while there are rules which prevent multi-club ownership under the same commercial banner, for example, there is nothing to stop corporations sponsoring any number of top-flight teams. This issue was placed under scrutiny during the Champions League quarter final between Barcelona and Paris St. Germain last season, as both clubs are sponsored by the wealthy Qatari Sport Investments Group (QSI) and therefore the subject of a potentially unethical conflict of interests.
Why the Integrity of the Sport Remains Paramount
When telecommunications firms Sky were forbidden from assuming control of Manchester United Football Club in the 1990’s, it is was because the deal was considered to represent a conflict of interests that would damage the integrity of the English Premier League. The same principle could be applied to multi-club sponsorship, as theoretically clubs that generate larger revenues could be afforded an unfair advantage when similarly affiliated teams come head to head.
While there is no suggestion that this was the case when Barcelona and Paris St. Germain played one another, it raises a serious question about regulation and the wider integrity of the sport. This is critically important, and it is important to note that some sponsorship deals provide an excellent match that actively generate human and social capital for the local community. Take the arrangement that exists between online financial brokers Alpari and West Ham United, for example, which is based on a shared passion for drive, success and the potential that exists within local communities.
While it may therefore be unfair to question the motives of all corporate sponsors, however, the FA must take steps to address the role of sponsorship in football before it becomes a major dilemma.