Mark Ritson on branding: Arsenal nicks the three points in Emirates deal

Emirates' £100m sponsorship of Arsenal and its new stadium kicked off a remarkable flurry of media activity last week. But is it a good deal? In the big-money, low-brains world of corporate sports sponsorship, this is a difficult question to answer. By my reckoning, three brands have fared very differently as a result of the Emirates stadium saga.

For Arsenal this is the equivalent of a 4-3 home victory. In monetary terms, £100m is a huge windfall for a club that has always had big ambitions, but not necessarily the bank balance to match.

In branding terms, however, the partnership with Emirates is not a positive one. When Arsenal originally began the search for a stadium sponsor, it announced it was looking for a company 'compatible with the club in terms of its philosophy'. This was kicked into touch the moment Emirates chairman Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al-Maktoum got the chequebook out.

Emirates is a branding mistake for three reasons. First, it is the current sponsor of Chelsea - Arsenal's bitter London rivals. Second, the sale of the naming rights of the stadium to Emirates will preclude the club being able to name its home in a manner consistent with its brand equity.

When a brand embarks on a new venture, it is advisable to forge a link to its brand heritage to smooth the transition. In an off-message moment, chairman Peter Hill-Wood admitted as much by professing that he would have preferred to name the stadium after Herbert Chapman, Arsenal's most successful manager and an iconic part of its history.

Third, Emirates has absolutely no legitimate link to Arsenal other than through its chequebook. Mike Francis, from Arsenal fanzine The Gooner, described his initial reaction to Emirates as, 'Who the hell are they and what have they got to do with Arsenal?'

Although the branding elements may be off-side, Arsenal has still struck a good deal. Sometimes it is necessary for a brand to trade a little of its equity for a lot of someone else's cash.

Chairman and fans alike seem united in their acceptance of the deal and the recognition that for this kind of money they will make a few brand exceptions. Indeed, fans are already speculating online about what the real, 'fan-friendly' name will be for their new home; £100m buys the official naming rights, but not those of the fans.

It's harder to see the value for money for Emirates. At best, the deal is a bitterly fought 1-1 draw. Although Sport+Markt, the sponsorship agency, claims the deal is good value, this can be discounted. Such agencies are obsessed with brand awareness and see it as the golden goal of sponsorship activity. But branding is a game of two halves.

Brand awareness is only a contributory factor in the battle to build brand equity. The Arsenal sponsorship is already generating huge awareness, but will not add anything to Emirates' brand associations or the purchase intentions of customers. It's a superficial strategy that talks a good game before kick-off, but does nothing on the pitch.

The big 2-0 loser in the Emirates deal is O2. In what now appears an embarrassing own-goal, O2 announced in August that it was to extend its annual £5m shirt sponsorship of Arsenal by two years. Now it can only watch from the stands as its prize signing is eclipsed by an expensive foreign import. It's enough to make you sick as a parrot.

- Mark Ritson is assistant professor of marketing at London Business School


L Arsenal is not the first major UK football club to sign away its stadium naming rights. Other contracts include Friends Provident's £350,000-a-year deal with Southampton and BT Cellnet's £300,000 contract with Middlesbrough.

L Reebok holds the longest-standing naming-rights deal in top-flight UK football, having signed up to brand Bolton Wanderers' ground in 1990.

L Even clubs at the lower end of football have used naming rights as a revenue stream. Conference side Scarborough has a long-term deal with frozen-food brand McCain. Fans have nicknamed its ground 'The Theatre of Chips'.

L The concept of selling stadium naming rights stems from the US. The most lucrative and biggest such contract in the world is the $10m-a-year deal between Reliant Energy and American football team the Houston Texans, which runs until 2032.

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