At one point during Alan Hansen’s BBC documentary on Britain’s
football millionaires the other week, the England captain, Alan Shearer,
ventured the opinion that ’there will never be a better time to be a
footballer’. What he means, of course, is that there will never be so
much money to be made from the game.
Shearer, no business analyst, was probably voicing a canny Geordie
belief that you can only get away with so much for so long.
But his comments were immaculately timed, coming as they did in advance
of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission’s decision to block BSkyB’s
pounds 625 million takeover of Manchester United. This (non-) event is
already being touted as the high watermark of football’s rock and roll
The argument is that the takeover - and a forecast wave of copycat moves
by other corporations on the UK’s other big clubs - could have brought
greater prosperity to the game, allowing English clubs to attract more
exciting players. Bigger games mean bigger audiences; bigger audiences
mean bigger commercial tie-ins. A virtuous spiral.
But now, argue the pessimists, the opposite is likely to happen. We’ve
just entered a vicious circle. For instance, The Sun pointed out on
Friday that pounds 115 million had been wiped off the share prices of
British football clubs since the MMC announcement.
And, say those same pessimists, if you want further evidence of changed
days, look no further than last week’s profits warning from the
sportswear company, Adidas (supplier of footwear to fashionable players
like David Beckham).
The reason for its mini slump was not the fact that children are
refusing to emulate Beckham but that the cost of its various sponsorship
arrangements, including pounds 30 million on last year’s World Cup
alone, is getting out of control.
Has the football bubble burst? Is its love affair with the media and
advertising industries set for an inevitably cooling-off period? Some
argue the game should be mightily relieved to have seen off Murdoch.
They point out that BSkyB’s move was nothing to do with trying to ensure
it had an inside track in negotiations between Sky Sports and the
Sky wants to own the most valuable football rights in the business when
the time comes for clubs to dispense with the FA’s collective bargaining
skills and start selling their own rights. Or run their own television
After all, which internet site do you go to when you want to know more
about Manchester United - the club’s official site or the FA Carling
MUTV might be good for Manchester United but it would help diminish
football’s accessibility and popular appeal, thus helping to damage the
sum total of the game’s marketing power.
On the other hand, you could argue that the game is strong enough to
command a viewership, whether it takes a broadcast or a narrowcast
route. So which is it? Could it be business as usual for the beautiful
Mark Palmer, the head of communications strategy at BMP Optimum, doubts
it. He says that a reassessment, not just of football but of sports
sponsorship as a whole, has been long overdue.
He states: ’The people who do it brilliantly are those like Carling who
use sponsorship as a platform for an integrated communications
There are a lot of people whose involvement in this area is at best
Too often this business is led by those doing the selling and there’s
not enough independent advice around.
’But I think we’re seeing more people looking for real value. They’re
looking at their total marketing budget and asking, ’Why am I doing
this?’ The big deals will still be important but elsewhere - shirt
sponsorship, for instance - I think we’ll see the overdemand
disappearing. We’ll start to see more teams without sponsors.’