The shirt on your back
I was travelling on the train to Charlton last Saturday and a very intelligent lad of about ten was sitting opposite me and talking to his much older brother who was evidently already in work. The lad noted that Andrews Air Conditioning were Charlton's shirt sponsors and asked if air conditioning units were for sale in the club shop.
'No,' said the brother, but there was a number in the programme that you could ring. How many fans were in the market for air conditioning units, the young boy persisted. Well, probably not that many, the brother admitted, but perhaps they needed some air conditioning at work.
As it so happens, the firm talked about their sponsorship recently, making it clear that it had to be justified in terms of the bottom line. One should bear in mind that the sum they are paying might enable them to sponsor the players' shin pads at a top club. However, they seemed to see a lot of the benefits in terms of offering hospitality to clients or potential clients.
Also, although they are a long-established and reputable company, I had never heard of them before their sponsorship. After all, air conditioning and ventiliation is very beneficial, but it's not very sexy. So it has improved their profile.
What is paid at Charlton is a small drop in the ocean when one considers that the combined sponsorship income for Barclays Premier League clubs has increased by £18.65m year-on-year to a record £165.75m this season, The figure is set to rise more dramatically next season when Manchester United's deal with Chevrolet, worth £52m a year, kicks in.
If you are a top club, you can do some really smart deals. Spurs have different sponsors for the Premiership and cup competitions. United's training kit deal with Aon is worth £19m per season alone, which is more than the main shirt deals for 15 of the other 19 clubs. The global status of the Premier League is reflected in ten of the 20 shirt sponsors being overseas companies.
All this is, of course, about building brands and a lot of pretentious nonsense is talked by brand consultants and the like. That's not to say that I reject the arguments of my colleague Sue Bridgwater about football brands. We associate sport with very positive qualities like athleticism, success, dedication etc. Indeed, it might be argued that some of these qualities are more evident in sports other than football, but away from major sports like football, cricket, rugby, tennis, golf and Formula One, sponsorship is harder to come by.
Moreover, there are plenty of other things one can sponsor. I am a patron of a local art gallery and I sometimes get to talk to some of the commercial sponsors, mainly smaller firms, at social events. Sometimes they have become sponsors because they have done work for the gallery, but they also see it as a high prestige activity. When I go to private views, some of the top drawer of local society is in evidence. I wouldn't ask them if they were interested in helping out our local non-league club.
Matthew Syed, one of our best sports columnists, looked at the whole issue in The Times last week. He points out that at one time actors were used for celebrity endorsements. Ronald Reagan, when he was a B movie actor, earned some extra dollars by endorsing cigarettes. But, after a while, people just saw that these were actors saying they liked some product, even if they had never used it before.
Syed's central point is that at some point advertising will move and sport will be left behind. If he is right, football could take a big financial hit, but it wouldn't happen overnight.