By Stuart Derrick, marketingmagazine.co.uk, Wednesday, 09 February 2011 12:00AM
No player is bigger than the club, according to football lore, but with £225m-worth of players changing hands during the January transfer window, the marketing value of players is in the spotlight.
Newcastle United fans had a stark reminder of this when they turned the page of their club calendars to February. Star striker and local lad Andy Carroll was staring out at them, but was now a £35m Liverpool player.
Chelsea wasted no time in starting to claw back some of its £50m investment in Liverpool's Fernando Torres. Its website exhorted fans to order their 'Torres number 9' shirts in time for last Sunday's game against his old club. Already, the shirt is outselling Carroll's by 250 to one, and reports suggest that demand is 40% higher than when Torres signed to Liverpool three years ago.
Robin Clarke, head of sports at Starcom MediaVest, points out that Torres' arrival has come at a time when most club shirts start to sell at a discount in readiness for the launch of the following season's design. 'Chelsea is effectively getting full price for what will soon be old stock,' he says.
Shirts are a big source of income and thus a key element of club marketing. 'The David Beckham-to-Real Madrid deal was supposedly already paid for by the time he transferred, in shirts', adds Clarke.
While the advantages to clubs are clear, are there similar benefits for their sponsors? Chelsea sponsor Samsung will be delighted as pictures of Torres with its branded shirt go round the world. Liverpool sponsor Standard Chartered, however, may be less pleased, given that it focuses on the Far East, where Carroll is relatively unknown.
It may not be so clear cut, though, argues Paul Meadows, head of brand marketing at LG, sponsor of Fulham until last season.
As a sponsor, you buy into a club and not an individual, says Meadows, who was also a marketer at Samsung when it signed its deal with Chelsea. 'When Fulham had European success last season it was great for LG to be associated with it. But the previous season, it escaped relegation on the last day, and that also is a good news story for a brand. You are always looking at the media value.'
Moreover, despite spending millions on sponsorship, brands are restricted in their use of players in marketing. Samsung, for example, had to sign up individual players and Chelsea's then-manager, Jose Mourinho, separately to appear in its ads after its sponsorship began in 2005, says Meadows.
In addition, players now jealously guard their image rights, which may be one reason why the Torres deal went to the wire. 'His representatives will want to keep a considerable percentage of their assets and opportunities away from Chelsea,' says Clarke.
Sponsors nonetheless remain keen to maintain links with players, as they offer an opportunity to engage with fans on another level. 'Players are the magic dust that allows sponsors to connect with consumers through unique access. You don't get that depth of relationship through club sponsorship (alone),' says Andy Westlake, chief executive of sports marketing agency Fast Track.
It is a fine balancing act - after all, players' fortunes go down as well as up. Wayne Rooney, for example, went from hero to villain when he handed in a transfer request last year. By contrast, Manchester United has enjoyed a near-20-year run of success under manager Sir Alex Ferguson, securing a succession of big-name sponsors.
As the sporting cliche goes, form is temporary, class is permanent.
The value to clubs of a 'superstar signing' can be roughly evaluated by some Facebook maths.
Fernando Torres has 5.2m Facebook fans to Chelsea FC's 3.6m. Both are dwarfed by Cristiano Ronaldo's near 20m fans; his club, Real Madrid, has only 8m. Real claimed to have paid off Ronaldo's world record £80m fee in less than a year through sales of 1.2m shirts and other memorabilia.
According to Steve Martin, chief executive of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, clubs' marketing efforts will be the biggest beneficiary of such mega-deals, if they take steps to make the most of them. 'Torres is an enormous loss to Liverpool,' he says. 'His is the top-selling shirt in the Premiership. That now passes to Chelsea and keeps (kit manufacturer) Adidas happy too.'
However, Martin points out that the real marketing benefits for clubs will come as fans start to pay for content, with a product development strategy that targets the digitally savvy. This could include exclusive pay-per-view editorial, such as webisodes, apps and games. 'When you look at it in this "3D" way, £50m suddenly looks like a good outlay,' he argues.
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk