Professional football in the 21st Century is governed by money like never before. Clubs that have money have the tools that allow them to be successful, while those that are financially limited will usually quickly reach a ceiling in terms of what they can achieve.
In the past, some English clubs have spent money they don't have in an attempt to bridge the gap to the elite level, hoping that the eventual rewards will cover the vast expense it took to get there. When the success doesn't come, or the benefits can cannot cover the initial expense, clubs are left in a financial hole.
In the Premier League and Football League, the plight of those who overextend trying to compete, most notably Leeds United, has contributed to the age of Financial Fair Play, where expenditure must be directly in proportion to income. The basis for success now has to come from strong revenue and the easiest way for a club to dramatically increase such streams is through sponsorship. All they have to do is lend their name to something or display company logos on their kit or property, receiving potentially extremely lucrative financial deals in return.
But now, as ever more clubs are accumulating more and more corporate partners, the question remains: are football clubs selling their soul to the world of corporate sponsorship and do they have a choice if they want to be successful?
Manchester United are the prime example of a Premier League club playing the sponsor market to its greatest potential, associating their name with everything from cars and jewellery to snack food, though it has left some fans concerned with where the club will draw the line. United have countless global partners including Chevrolet, who will soon become the club's main shirt sponsor, Mister Potato Crisps, Bwin, Thomas Cook, Singha, Aeroflot and Bulova, to name just a few. In 2011, DHL enjoyed a short stint as United's official training kit sponsor. A lot of supporters are worried that having so many sponsorship deals cheapens the image of the club.
For United, the biggest untapped reserve remains the naming rights to their world famous Old Trafford home. Rumours recently surfaced on the internet that United are considering selling Old Trafford to Nike in a deal that could be worth as much as £500m. In April 2013, when selling the name of their training ground to AON for £160m, United stressed that the Old Trafford name would never be sold, though with the amount of money it could potentially draw in, it will always remain a nagging possibility.
Other Premier League clubs have already taken the plunge in selling off the naming rights to their home. The most famous example saw Newcastle fans left outraged when owner Mike Ashley changed the name of St James' Park to the Sports Direct Arena. The stadium was only restored to its former name when the club secured a more lucrative shirt sponsorship.
Beyond just acquiring a never-ending list of partners and stadium name changes, the need to be attractive in a global market for the sake of money has left some clubs exposed to losing their whole identity. Cardiff City paid the ultimate price when owner Vincent Tan completely rebranded the club to make it a more attractive prospect for global commerce. Hull City could soon follow, with owner Assem Allam making considerable efforts to change the name of the club to Hull Tigers, something which he sees as vastly more marketable in an increasingly globalised economy. In these two examples, fans have seen the soul ripped out of their respective clubs for the incentive of a little extra cash and the sad thing is now that there is a precedent it could happen to others too.
In England, selling out for sponsors is not something exclusive to the top flight. Further down the league ladder the pursuit of money has clubs trading in parts of their soul for a little extra financial stability, or sadly, sometimes because they need cash injections just to stay afloat.
Leicester City left Filbert Street for a brand new stadium in 2002, which has held two different sponsor names in little over a decade, causing a lack of identity at the club's new home. Chesterfield have experienced similar identity issues, with their new stadium having held two different sponsor names in just five years since it was built. Even at non-league level the quest for money seems to outweigh the upkeep of tradition. In 2013, Conference North outfit Altrincham traded in the name of their 103-year-old Moss Lane home in favour of a sponsorship deal with a local scrap metal merchant.
As a result of money's power in football, especially in England and the Premier League, opening up to sponsorship is unfortunately something clubs cannot afford not to do. The only way to get ahead and more importantly stay ahead, is to spend money on the best players, the best coaches, the best facilities and the best infrastructure. The only way to get the level of money now required for success and stay financially viable, is sponsorship.
Fans may not like that their club could be forced to bend its history or severely cheapen its image, but in a world dominated by corporate interests, for the time being at least, it remains the only option.
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