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19th Jul 2019

The case for getting rid of sponsors on football shirts

Wayne Farry

Huddersfield Town will go without a shirt sponsor for the 2019/20 season

Paddy Power and Huddersfield Town this week announced that the bookmaker will be sponsoring the Terriers for their first season back in the Championship.

But when the design for the new kit was revealed, featuring what was dubbed as the ‘hen party sash’ on Twitter, all hell broke loose.

The shirt, as you can see, came with what was described as “the world’s first sash sponsor”, featuring the Paddy Power logo extending across the entire shirt.

Alongside the kit launch was some semi-convincing promotional material, with both club and sponsor hyping up the partnership and style of shirt as a sign of innovation.

Although many thought it was a joke, the story kept growing until Huddersfield wore the shirt during a friendly match against Rochdale – which appeared to confirm it was genuine.

Then came the true reveal on Friday, as Huddersfield and Paddy Power shared that the whole thing had been a stunt. The best part of all, though, was that Huddersfield won’t be bearing a sponsor at all for the next season – leaving them with a beautifully clean kit.

The prank is part of Paddy Power’s Save Our Shirt campaign, which is “an initiative that is backing a move towards unbranded football kits, effectively returning the shirt back to the fans”.

In the promotional video for the campaign, Paddy Power encourages its rivals to remove their brand logos from the front of other football shirts because “football shirts aren’t billboards”.

“Shirt sponsorship in football has gone too far. We accept that there is a role for sponsors around football, but the shirt should be sacred,” said Paddy Power managing director, Victor Corcoran.

This prompts the question of what level of viability is there for a world without football shirt sponsors?

There was a time not long ago when shirt sponsors would have been inconceivable. It wasn’t until 1976 when Kettering Town acquired a shirt sponsor that the practice took off and grew into the norm it is today.

Considering where we are now, with Premier League shirts now featuring both a front shirt sponsor and sleeve sponsor, it does seem unlikely that we’ll ever get to a stage where that declines rather than increases to the point of absurdity.

It can be done though – and the Huddersfield stunt has raised a thought-provoking issue.

Take Barcelona, for example. For the club’s entire history up until 2005, they declined to allow sponsorship of their shirts. That unwritten rule was partly broken when they hosted the logo for charity Unicef on their from 2005 to 2010, before they eventually signed a deal with the Qatar Foundation.

Since then they’ve had Qatar Airways and now Rakuten. They even have a nifty Beko logo on their sleeve as they join the march to kits plastered in more brands than club identity.

Interestingly, some clubs have begun to offer the option of replica shirts without sponsors on them. West Ham United in particular were praised both for doing so and how nice their shirt was when presented this way.

Conceivably, a football club can decide to retain a shirt sponsor, but rather than paint the front of their shirt with its logo, instead simply make the brand their primary logo.

When Barcelona ended their decades-long period without a shirt sponsor, their prize was the highest deal of its kind ever to be agreed. If professional football clubs were to do this across the board, a similar level of interest and bidding would likely take place.

It’s worth noting too that, for all but the very biggest clubs, the sums involved are not that great. Aston Villa’s sponsorship is reportedly worth no more than £8 million, barely enough to recruit an unproven attacking midfielder in the Belgian first tier.

For the likes of Manchester United – whose deal with Chevrolet is believed to pocket them £47m per year – the sum is obviously much larger, but this is something undoubtedly lessened by the 67 other sponsorships that the club has.

And if you remove the shirt sponsor, then the value of other sponsorship – training kits etc. – will increase in turn.

Crucially though, and this is the key point, shirts just look better without sponsors – and because they look better more people will buy them. It returns the shirt to the fans, which in this age of brand-backed football, isn’t a bad thing at all.