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The History of Sponsorship in English Football

Sponsorship. It’s inescapable in modern football. From an abundance of weirdly niche Rainham Steel advertisements plastered around grounds, or reading about gambling websites that accept Paypal on your favourite football history site, sponsorship has been elevating English football and all the businesses it creates to new financial heights for over 50 years.

But how did we get from no sponsors to the bombardment of ads we see at football matches today?

The concept of sponsorship in English football can be traced back to the early 1970s. Before then, clubs relied primarily on gate receipts and merchandise sales to generate revenue.

However, with the advent of televised matches, the potential for commercial opportunities was on many corporations’ minds.

Early Shirt Sponsorships

In 1976, the first shirt sponsorship deal was struck between Kettering Town and Kettering Tyres. The non-league club took the bold step of displaying the company’s logo on their shirts, paving the way for a new era in football marketing.

With these sorts of moneymaking moves, it often just takes one to make the first step and see results, no matter how small the club.

Sure enough, despite the relative size of the Non-league Kettering football club, bigger clubs started to take notice of this ground-breaking move as other clubs began to explore how they could get a taste of this action.

In 1979, Liverpool Football Club struck a deal with Hitachi, a Japanese electronics company, becoming the first top-flight club to have a commercial logo on their shirts. This landmark agreement showcased the untapped potential for revenue generation through sponsorship.

It was a huge leap, just 3 years after Kettering’s bold marketing move. The decision had clearly sent shockwaves across the English football pyramid.  Just 3 years later one of the giants of the English game had taken to proudly wearing the name of a Japanese conglomerate.

More clubs soon followed Liverpool’s shiny new suit. realizing the financial benefits of sponsorship deals.

6 years after Liverpool, Manchester United signed a sponsorship agreement with Sharp Corporation, a prominent electronics company, as the name would become synonymous with the Man United team of the late 80s.

This partnership was one of the earliest high-profile deals in English football, marking the beginning of a trend that would shape the sport’s future.

In many ways after Man United’s success with the Sharp sponsorship, these corporate plugs became part of the visual appeal of football shirts.

‘Brought to you by…”

By the early 1980’s the attitudes toward sponsorship in English football had 180’d as even the Football league itself was getting in on the action, sanctioning the renaming of entire tournaments in order to promote paying sponsors.

The first to do so was the British National Dairy Council when they bought the naming rights for the EFL Cup (League Cup) for 2 million pounds. It was referred to as the imaginatively named Milk Cup for the next 4 seasons until 1986.

The Premier League era, which began in 1992, took sponsorship to a new stratosphere. The formation of the Premier League brought increased television exposure, attracting a global audience with companies chomping at the bit for a taste of this new-look First Division.

There was so much more to gain from sponsoring football teams or even the entire Premier League that businesses investing had gone from local corporations to multinational conglomerates.

In 1993, the Premier League itself secured its first title sponsor, Carling, in a ground-breaking deal worth £12 million over four years.

It paved the way for other companies to align their brands with the Premier League, solidifying its status as one of the most marketable football competitions in the world.

Since then, sponsorship in English football has been pushed to unprecedented heights. The shirt sponsorship market has become fiercely competitive, with companies vying for exposure on the jerseys of some of the biggest clubs.

Clubs are also pickier over the aesthetic of the corporations themselves, as the logo has to become a selling point for the shirt and enhance the design.

The right logo can enhance shirt sales numbers, but the wrong one can have a dramatic effect with most fans happy to don an older shirt in lieu of one affixed with an ugly sponsorship.

In recent years, the influence of sponsorship has expanded further beyond the realm of shirt logos. Stadium naming rights have become highly sought-after, with companies looking to associate their brand with iconic football venues, and clubs standing to make much of what they paid to build the stadium back.

Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium are prime examples of this trend, showcasing the enduring impact of sponsorship in the modern game

Signs of Unsustainability

“Now it’s converted into a competition that has losses all year. All clubs lose money. There is no sustainability in the Premier League. The Premier League is not a financially sustainable model… They’re financed by the owners but with enormous amounts of money and that is distorting the market. They get more revenues, OK. But you lose money. And you’re injecting one and a half billion every year. What does it mean? It means you’re not sustainable at all.” –La Liga president Javier Tebas speaking in 2023

The engorged finances that make the Premier League the most lucrative competition has served to make players’ transfer fees and wages the highest in the world. Long gone are the days of First Division footballers earning more modest salaries and living amongst regular citizens.

Now players and their fans have become further removed from each other than ever, which, when combined with the rise of social media has created a rift between many fans and the players they support.

Sponsorship has single-handedly transformed the landscape of English Football, from the humble beginnings of a local business trying to scrape advertise their product to hundreds of fans, to entire stadiums proudly displaying huge businesses’ names.

Sponsorship has allowed The Premier League to consistently attract the world’s best talents. transformative role in the history of English football. Its only now that we start to see a breakdown in the sustainability of such a financially bloated football pyramid.

A huge part of the success of The Premier League, has sponsorship created an overfed monster? The average salary of a Premier League player today is £60,000 a week, during a shrunken British economy.

With these massively over-inflated wages, there is surely only so much time before player, club, and corporate greed goes too far.

As we see Everton’s £750 million debt accrued over the last few years, with the side narrowly avoiding a relegation that many theorise would destroy the club, it’s impossible not to think about whether it could happen to any team not backed by multi-billionaires.

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