Kit sponsorships are a known commodity within the soccer landscape. Nearly every club team has a brand that sees the value in adorning their uniform. The exposure is comprehensive: in today's media-driven world, that logo can be seen across live TV, social, highlight packages, subsequent team advertising and promotions, and in-stadium.
Yet as we know, not all kit sponsorships are created equal. Some are formed through an interest in working with local companies and strengthen those community ties. Others look to leverage their international status to tap into an expanding industry.
Within this ongoing series, a closer look will help distill any trends that can be found within the world's most prominent leagues. Emerging categories will be identified. Continuity of a long-term kit sponsorship, or lack thereof, will be deciphered. And the visualization will be created between how teams perform within club competition and the type of partnership that they can attract.
Note that specific deal numbers and logistics are noted within this article when available. However, since many financial specifics are held close to the chest, this analysis is used as an overarching trend of what has taken place in the past and how those deals look today. This will not be an examination of whether or not a club overpaid/underpaid for a specific sponsorship.
With all that being said, onto the analysis!
English Premier League:
The English Premier League (EPL) is often seen as the industry standard of how global football business is conducted. It is the most lucrative league in the world with the largest TV deal, international exposure, and most affinity to any casual fan. This also doesn't take into account additional added value opportunities within the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, and additional domestic cup competitions. It's no surprise that the fight to remain competitive is with added motivation: not only are you fighting for a title opportunity, but you are also looking to stay in the hunt for increased attention and economic impact.
This wariness to stay competitive within England's top league translates directly to the field of play. Most EPL teams outside of the "big six" (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham) often play not to lose rather than playing to win. Playing a primarily low-risk, defensive-driven structure, teams are often content to eke out draws and salvage a point as opposed to risk going after better competition at the expense of falling further down the table. They realize that they are unlikely to be title contenders and that their best bet is to hunker down, play for the middle of the table, and avoid the relegation zone (teams that finish #18-20).
You can envision how this impact kit sponsorships. Brands want to maximize their investment and are more likely to invest significant capital in a sure thing. This is the tricky balance to strike: teams want to improve their table standing and earn more notoriety, more reach. Yet they must stay afloat at the top level as a fall down into The Championship would be disastrous for profits. This balance impacts both the longevity of the partnership as well as the type of kit sponsor a club can attract.
Let's look at the pie charts below:
If you analyze the shift in kit sponsorship categories from the 2010/2011 season to the 2020/2021 season, you'll notice the areas of transportation and betting are on the rise. This makes a world of sense as the viewing audience of the EPL has only increased with time. Transportation (categorized here as airlines and automotive) appeals to an audience that is appearing more and more global. The increase in betting-based kit sponsorships in the top flight coincides with the explosion of that industry over the previous decade.
*Note that while there are only 20 teams in the EPL at one time, the charts above track the progress of 31 teams. That's because the charts above categorize teams that have appeared in the EPL at any point during the 2010/2011, 2015/2016, or 2020/2011 seasons. So even if a team only appears in the EPL for one of the seasons, like Watford (EPL in 2015-2016), their kit sponsorship was still tracked within the other time frames to allow for comparison.
Also, note that the three seasons were chosen based on simplicity. There are of course different teams in the EPL from season to season. But these five-year gaps allow for larger economic and marketing changes to be showcased compared to an every-year analysis.
The key takeaways:
Only three clubs held the same kit sponsor throughout the entirety of the 2010's: Arsenal (Emirates), Liverpool (Standard Chartered), and Manchester City (Etihad Airways). No surprise that these are three of the "big six" clubs, consistently finishing in top positions within the table. Title-winning pedigree further elevated the sponsorship within the previous decade as Manchester City (four times) and Liverpool (once) provided a nice incentive for their respective front-of-kit sponsors.
King Power International took over Leicester City in 2010. Since then, they have become fully integrated within the club, having served as kit sponsor since 2010 (as well as the home stadium's naming rights holder since 2011). While technically not included above as one of the team's to remain continuity throughout the decade, they still held a large presence in this year's kits. Based in Thailand, King Power struck a reworked deal with the Tourism Authority of Thailand to promote tourism within the country in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To further illustrate the importance of league position, only 11 teams retained the same kit sponsor for consecutive intervals. These include the four teams previously mentioned (Arsenal, Leicester City, Liverpool, Manchester City) as well as Brighton, Everton, Manchester United, Norwich City, Stoke City, Tottenham, and West Ham.10 of the 11 teams either maintained their place at the top table or ascended to it during their respective run of sponsorship continuity.
One of those aforementioned teams, Brighton, ascended to a higher level of English football in each of the three intervals. It reflected in their kit sponsor as they went from IT First (Netherlands-based software company) during their time in League One to American Express (increased viewing exposure, particularly in the United States) on their way up to the EPL
On the flip side of things, Bolton went into free fall within each of the three intervals. They started with a prominent betting company (188BET), who also sponsored fellow EPL colleague Wigan Athletic at the time, then rolled with a smaller mobile service provider during their time in The Championship, to now repping Home Bargains in the fourth tier of English football.
With the EPL being a billion-dollar business in the states for quite some time now, the top teams cash in. Look no further than Manchester United. Ranked 10th in Forbes' 2020 edition of World's Most Valuable Sports Teams (third-most valuable soccer club in the world, most valuable EPL club), the soccer powerhouse inked Chevrolet to a kit deal starting in 2014. Capitalizing on an increasing American audience, as well as interest in expanding into additional global markets that converged upon United's overseas fanbase, the deal saw the American car manufacturer pay over $628 million across a seven-year span.
Speaking of American-based companies getting involved, look to Fulham's 2015/2016 kit sponsorship to provide a bit of sunshine. The then-Championship level club adorned "Visit Florida" on their uniforms for that season. The interesting parallel: Fulham is owned by Shahid Khan who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Wigan Athletic has allocated its kit sponsorship back into the community - its own community. The Wigan Athletic Official Supporters Club provides a close-knit support system that can help further amplify the club amongst die-hard fans.
The kit sponsorship deals listed above expand beyond the front-of-team jerseys. Particularly within the aftermath of COVID-19, kit sponsorships have become that much more valuable to a club's bottom line. With more resources than counterpart European clubs, English Premier League teams have the distinct advantage of global networks, international social media channels, and a diversity of revenue streams. These partners are activated across the full gambit of signage activations, social media, and unique OTT offerings.
With NBC's deal running through the end of the 2021-2022 season, it makes for an interesting time frame for new kit sponsorship negotiations to take place. The ability to get a larger piece of the pie behooves teams to strike when the iron gets hot. Until then, some teams will leave the top flight, new ones will enter. The constant balance towards relevance, and perhaps even notoriety, within the English soccer landscape, carries on.