Sponsorship in football. Where did it come from, where have we got to?



By Tony Attwood


The sponsorship news for the coming season in Spain is that the top two tiers of Spanish soccer have been rebranded for next season after the operating body for both leagues failed to secure a new title sponsor.   How different from the Premier League where all clubs including for example Crystal Palace and AFC Bournemouth, have brands competing to be seen on the front of their shirts.  This coming season both those two teams will wear the brand of Casino.com, Mansion casino promoting their online gaming site.

As we all know such sponsorship is fundamental to the clubs in the English leagues, adding valuable revenue to the clubs and of course helping them fund playing purchases and player salaries, as well as the improvement in ground quality that we’ve seen over the last 20 years.

Indeed sponsorship in football now seems to us all as normal and everyday, while the shirts that clubs wore in the past with no sponsorship details on them now seem a little quaint.  A bit like shirts without the names of the player on the back, or shirts without players’ numbers on.   But it wasn’t always like this.   

I took a particular interest in shirt sponsorship when I found out that the original shirt sponsorship deal happened only five miles from the village in Northamptonshire in which I now live.   Long before I moved here – in January 1976, Southern League Kettering Town became the first British club to play with a sponsor’s name on its shirts, after signing a deal with Kettering Tyres, when its players turned out against Bath City.

What makes this interesting from an Arsenal point of view is that Kettering Town had quite a relationship with Arsenal in the past, and both Woolwich Arsenal and Kettering Town played in the United League together from 1896 onwards (while Arsenal were also playing in Division 2 of the Football League).

In fact at that time, Northamptonshire was a fair hotbed of football, with Wellingborough, Rushden and Kettering (three clubs within 10 miles of each other) all playing in the same League with Arsenal, Tottenham, Millwall and Luton.

Of course, Kettering will also be forever linked with Arsenal because of the transfer of Eddie Hapgood from Kettering Town to Arsenal.  He went on to play 440 times for Arsenal, and 43 for England – 34 of those as captain.  And there is Herbert Chapman’s own link with the county where he started his management career at Northampton Town.

Anyway, back with the notion of shirt sponsorship the FA in its normal fashion immediately ruled that Kettering was breaking its rules by having sponsorship on the shirts, despite the fact that no such rule had ever been introduced into the FA rulebook – although it had on occasion been discussed as a possibility.

Kettering Town FC then changed the name of the shirts to “Kettering T”, and claimed that the T stood for “Town”. The FA in normal heavy handed style threatened to fine Kettering, and the Southern League club gave up the fight.

As for the notion of what could appear on the shirt, other than the sponsor’s name, as you will probably know Arsenal were of course totally at the centre of this.   For on 25 August 1928, for the first match of the new season Herbert Chapman introduced numbers on the players’ shirts.  

It was certainly the first occasion it happened in England, and seemingly also the first time anywhere in the world and the following Monday the newspapers deemed the numbered shirts experiment “a success” and predicted wider use.  But three days later the FA said “no” and it was not until 5 July 1939 that they finally agreed to accept the obvious benefits.

Thus it was on 30 August 1939 that Arsenal were officially sanctioned to wear numbered shirts for the first time in a league match, having applied to the League for permission every summer since the original rejection.  The result on the day was Arsenal 1 Blackburn 0 in front of a 17137 crowd.  However, after one more match the season was abandoned and it was not until 31 August 1946 that the matter was taken up again.

As for the printing of player’s names on the back of players’ shirts this came in after the Premier League was launched in 1992.    However, the BBC initially insisted the sponsors’ names be removed for matches that were televised!

So now in England we take it that shirt sponsorship is an obvious and a given in all major leagues and I guess most of us know that Arsenal and Real Madrid of course have the Emirates brand.   

Meanwhile back with Spain it is worth remembering that while all league clubs in England have sponsorship at the start of last season in Spain such major players as Valencia, Sevilla, Malaga, Espanyol, Rayo Vallencano, Granada and Real Betis, did not have a sponsor at all.

Getting a sponsor isn’t necessarily as easy as it appears.



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