A Word from Our Sponsors: The Fortieth anniversary of Shirt Sponsorship within British Football 

An example of how late it took for commercialism to take a real hold in British football is shown by the fact that, despite advertising hoardings along the perimeter of the Football field being a feature at English Football grounds that had gone back several decades, top level sides such as Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur had done without it as a source of revenue up until the early to mid-1970s, after the development of regular football highlights shows and the advent and subsequent and popularization of colour television.  Up until forty years ago this month however, shirt advertising - pretty much now an everyday feature in the modern game - had also not been permitted by the Football Association.


The World’s first instance of shirt sponsorship in Football had come with Uruguay’s Penarol side in the mid-1950s.  Apparently, Uruguay’s 1950 World Cup winning captain - Obdulio Varela - was so outraged at the deal that he refused to wear the shirt bearing the logo.  By the end of the 1960s the French, Austrian, Swiss and Danish Leagues had also permitted shirt sponsorship deals, however all of Europe’s larger leagues had opposed the idea right up until the early 1970s when German liquor producer Jagermeister were looking into ways of raising their public profile.  Rival drinks company Martini had created a Motor Racing Team in 1968 and Jagermeister had followed suit in 1972.  In May of that year however, the company’s CEO, Gunter Mast, decided to go one step further.  

While at a party alongside a few other German power brokers, most of whom had disappeared to the kitchen to watch West Germany’s Euro ’72 quarter final encounter with England – a competition that the Germans would go on to win (their first since the ‘miracle of Berne at the 1954 World Cup), Mast came to a conclusion: - ‘I realised my idea that German football was a sport rooted only in the lower classes was wrong…through football, you could reach all sections of the population’.  Around the same time his home town, Eintracht Braunschweig, had been in financial dire straits and an agreement between Jagermeister and Eintracht Braunschweig was reached for the latter’s shirts to endorse the former’s product.

The request put to the German FA which was turned down, therefore as an alternate plan Eintracht Braunschweig chose to replace their traditional red lion on the club’s badge with a deer’s head beneath a glowing cross – bearing an exact likeness to Jagermeister’s corporate logo – and then enlarged the size of the badge to 18cms in size and moved it to the centre of the club’s shirts.  The German FA realised that they were powerless within their own rules to opposite Eintracht  Braunschweig’s move.  On March 24th 1973, Eintracht Braunschweig lined up against Schalke 04 in shirts bearing Jagermeister’s product logo.  By the end of 1973, the German FA relented on their long opposition to shirt sponsorship and now deals such as the one between Eintracht Braunschweig and Jagermeister were permissible.

Once the door had been opened by Eintracht Braunschweig, the pressure would grow in the English game to follow suit.  In 1975/76 former Wolves forward Derek Dougan had become the Chief Executive and Player-Manager of Southern League side Kettering Town; by January 1976 he had accepted a four figure deal with local company Kettering Tyres for the side’s shirts to endorse the aforementioned company.  The FA however ordered the removal of this company’s name from Kettering Town’s shirts.  Unperturbed and taking inspiration from Gunter Mast, Dougan decided to reduce the advertisement to read ‘Kettering T’ – claiming that it referred to the Club’s name and the T stood for Town.  The FA weren’t buying Dougan’s explanation and threatened Kettering with a £1000 fine should the words not be removed.

The issue however failed to recede, mainly because the FA’s stance on shirt sponsorship was contradicted by the fact that by this point, the England National Side’s track suits carried the logo and name of their kit manufacturer – Admiral.  At the end of the 1976/77 season, Kettering Town forwarded a proposal to the FA for the restrictions on shirt sponsorship to be removed, which was backed by Second Division Bolton Wanderers and First Division Derby County.  The latter club had actually signed a sponsorship deal with Swedish motor company Saab the previous season, where all first team players were each given the use of a Saab vehicle.  The deal included various advertising around the ground and on match day tickets.


Derby County players were also seen in various promotional photos wearing first team shirts bearing the Saab logo, also worn by the ‘Golden Goal’ Girl ticket sellers around the ground.  Because of the ban however, Derby County never played a game in these shirts.  In June 1977, the F.A. finally agreed to Kettering Town’s request, though as irony would have it Kettering Town were unable to find a sponsor for the 1977/78 season.  The honour of the first British side to carry shirt sponsorship went north of the border, with Hibernian’s shirts for the 1977/78 season endorsing the name of their kit manufacturer, Bukta (as shown by the pic of George Best at the top of the page, who was turning out for Hibs around the time).

The first side to carry shirt sponsorship in England had been the famous Liverpool side that dominated English and European Football at the time, who from the start of the 1979/80 season wore shirts carrying the name of Japanese electronics firm, Hitachi.  Liverpool chairman Sir John Smith had stated in mitigation that from an income of £2.4m, the club made a profit of just £17,000 from the 1978/79 season, despite being runaway First Division champions and winning the European Cup back to back in 1977 and 1978.  By the 1980s, shirt sponsorship quickly became the norm.  However, what sponsors truly desired was television coverage to heighten the profile of their product and in this instance the television companies provided a major stumbling block.

The Television companies were unwilling to show sides wearing shirts adorning the names of corporate sponsorship. The BBC's licensing requirements did not permit advertisements between and during coverage programmes and hence shirt sponsorship seemed to stand in stark contrast to this.  Meanwhile on the ITV network, they saw shirt sponsorship as a means of getting a product advertised on their channels but bypassing the payment of an advertising slot.  As a result, games involving sides with corporate advertisements emblazoned across the middle of their chests were always going to be troublesome fare.  Therefore such games had to be played out by the clubs in shirts that did not bare the names of their sponsor, in order for the TV companies show coverage of the match.  Oddly enough, one side that attempted a creative way around this were Coventry City in 1980, who were then under the chairmanship of Match of the Day anchor-man Jimmy Hill.

At the start of the 1980/81 season, the Sky Blues had signed a sponsorship deal with Coventry-based car manufacturer Talbot.  As Coventry City’s sponsors were not permitted to be shown on television, Hill had proposed to change the club’s name to ‘Coventry Talbot’.  When the Football League had prevented this, the design for Coventry City’s shirts had incorporated the famous T logo of Talbot Motors into their shirt’s design.  The TV companies however still banned the shirt, meaning that Coventry City were then required to wear a kit with a completely different design in order to appear in televised games.  The 1983 TV deal however brought a compromise in finally allowing shirts baring the name of sponsors, but only at half the size of those permitted by the Football League’s regulations. In exchange for this compromise, the Football League finally allowed league fixtures to be televised live on a weekly basis, despite nearly twenty years of resisting this move, through fear of its effects on match day attendances.  

By the late 1980s however, as TV companies came to favour coverage of the bigger sides, particularly those in the First Division (prior to 1983, highlights shows such as 'The Big Match' or 'Match of the Day' would often show lower division games. After 1983/84 however this was greatly scaled back).  Shirt advertising therefore was to become another driver in the growing inequity within the Football League.  In 1988, First Division clubs collectively made £12.8m from shirt sponsorship, the second division in comparison collectively raised only £2.8m.  Further down the Football League the disparity grew further still, with third division clubs collectively raising £1.6m and the fourth division just £900,000.  And from 1988, as ITV’s coverage heavily centred on the ‘Big Five’ clubs, there would also begin to be a disparity between the amounts of sponsorship revenue reaped by clubs within the top division itself.  

As well as shirt sponsorship, clubs had also received pooled revenue from sponsorship deals that the Football League received quite some time prior.  The first sponsored Football League competition was the Watney Cup, which ran from 1970 to 1973, just ahead of the start of the Football season.  This competition involved the highest scoring sides from all four divisions who were not competing in Europe or promoted to the division above the following season.  The very first Watney Cup had been won by Derby County in 1970, with a 4-1 win over Man United providing the first Cup competition to be won by Brian Clough during his managerial career.  

From 1981/82 the Football League Cup was to be sponsored by the Milk Marketing Board, followed by the League itself in 1983/84 by Japanese electronics firm, Canon.  However by 1985, as with TV rights revenue, this too was to be weighted heavily in favour of the top division.  Threats of a breakaway from the Football League by the top division had led to 50% of this revenue accruing to the First division – a figure that was later to rise to 75% in 1988.  Also, by 1977, like sponsorship of competitions, a club's sacred shirts and shirt colours were already seen as an outlet for generating revenue long before shirt sponsorship was permitted. 

Leeds United manager Don Revie (often lampooned by his detractors as ‘Don Readies’) had always had a penchant for PR gimmicks that had the explicit intention of raising the profile of Leeds United outside of their traditional West Yorkshire fan base.  These included numbered blue stocking tags, branded footballs that were hurled into the crowd just before kick-off, tracksuits bearing the players' names and the redesigning of the club badge to its iconic ‘smiley crest’ design incorporating the club’s initials.  In 1973 however, Revie was approached by fledgling sportswear company - Admiral - with an idea that was to spread and thus endure within the Football industry to this very day.

Prior to this deal, clubs used to buy their blank shirts from established sportswear manufacturers such as Umbro and had the club’s badge and shirt numbers stitched on.  A deal was struck between Leeds United and Admiral however, totalling £15,000 (worth £182,000 in 2017 terms), where kits were to be designed in such a fashion as to enable them to be copyrighted with a view to sales of replica Leeds United shirts, with the club receiving a royalty for each replica sold.  Instead of having to buy three or four sets of kit each season, as clubs had done up to this point, Leeds United had discovered that kit manufacturers were prepared to offer free kits for a share of the profits from the sale of the replica shirts.

Revie realised that passionate football fans would be prepared to pay good money to wear replicas of their club’s strip.  Also, the more distinctive the club’s kit, the more recognisable the product, thus effectively remolding the football club as a branded product.  Admiral’s new kits had to be distinctive to be saleable, however as a by-product of this deal Admiral’s logo now appeared as prominently on the Leeds United shirts as the club badge.  Also, but for the Admiral logo, the new Leeds United home kit was practically indistinguishable to the previous Umbro version.  Admiral’s innovation however was to come with Leeds United’s new change kit that was introduced from the start of the 1973/74 season.

The new all-yellow with blue and white trim away kit - now made with nylon rather than cotton as had previously been the norm - became the first second strip to be consistently worn for away games, rather than just when a colour clash occurred, as was previously the case.  This had been a deliberate attempt to maximise the sales of the shirt’s replicas.  On becoming the new manager of the England national side in 1974, Revie also persuaded the FA to do the same with the England kit.  The FA signed a shirt sponsorship deal with Admiral, who produced the first commercially available England shirt that featured a sportswear manufacturer’s logo.           


On the back of this Admiral also secured shirt deals with the Welsh and Scottish national sides, as well as other big clubs, such as West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton and Manchester United – the latter two showcasing new Admiral shirts in their FA Cup Final appearances in the mid to late 1970s.  Signing up Manchester United – the most supported side in the country even then – was a particularly lucrative deal for Admiral, however outcry ensued within the popular press when the new Manchester United produced by Admiral kit now costed £15, three times the price of the £5 generic red shirt with white trim that Manchester United fans previously purchased.  On the back of Admiral’s commercial success, established kit manufacturers such as Umbro, Bukta and Adidas were to follow suit. 


By the 1980s, the club’s sacred shirts, that would previously have gone unchanged for decades, were now to regularly change at least once every other season.  Also came the rise of the ‘third’ kit.  The concept of this kit had been for it only to be used in the event that both a visiting teams' home and away kits clashed with the colours of the home side’s strip.  The FA’s rules prior to 1989/90 was that should either side’s colours clash in an FA Cup Semi Final or Final, both sides were to wear their change kit.  If this led to a further clash, one of the two sides would adorn a third kit – as Liverpool had done in their 1979 FA Cup Semi Final with Manchester United, wearing Yellow for the first time. 

By the 1990s Manchester United had led the away in exploiting the third kit as a source of revenue, experimenting also with non-traditional club colours such as Grey and Black, as well as the traditional ‘Newton Heath’ colours of Green and Yellow.  Once established as an accepted revenue source other clubs had soon followed, such as Arsenal’s white kit in honour of Herbert Chapman or other non-traditional colours such as blue or navy.  Clubs have also released special shirts for playing in Europe (as Manchester United had done in the late 1990s) or commemorating anniversaries - and in the case of Arsenal, the redcurrant kit for their final season at Highbury. 

The extent to which the third kit is now considered a source of revenue is shown by Arsenal’s kit deal, which they had entered into with Puma from the start of the 2014/15 season.  Arsenal were to receive a record £30 million per year from the deal, however in exchange Puma are to introduce three new kits each season.  The fact that clubs over the last forty years or so have come to change their kits so often, as well as allowing their shirts to be used as an advertising hoarding, has led many fans in recent years to shun the transient nature of modern day kits in favour of the austerity of replicas of the older football shirts pre-dating the modern era of shirt design, as provided by companies such as TOFFS Co. (The Old Fashioned Football Shirt Company) or Score Draw.  In many ways the adoption of the traditional strip comes at the expense of rushing out to buy the new shirt and is in some way an assertion of authenticity and a reaction against the commercialism of their club’s identity. 

Although seen as a lucrative revenue stream, modern shirt design can in some ways create an identity crisis for clubs.  As argued by Dave Wangerin in his When Saturday Comes article in 2004: ‘wear a replica strip in those parts of North America that still live in ignorance of international football and you are likely to be met with comments like “Northern Rock? What team is that?” or “That striped shirt is cool, but why does it say ‘Churchill’ on it?” These are not stupid questions. To the uninitiated, Bolton are not playing Chelsea so much as Reebok are playing Fly Emirates…. Surely in time Manchester United will come to realise their most appropriate shirt sponsor is Manchester United plc’.

However it is not just the club’s shirts that have been invaded by corporate advertising.  Following Jimmy Hill’s example at Coventry City with Talbot, shirt sponsorship pioneer Gunter Mast on becoming Eintracht Braunschweig’s club president 1983 proposed to change the name of the club to ‘Jagermeister Braunschweig’ – however this time the plan failed to receive the approval of the German FA.  The idea of a club being named after a sponsor though would be revived just over a decade later when the League of Wales side Llansantffraid FC won the Welsh Cup and qualified for the European Cup Winners Cup.  As a result of the sponsorship deal they brokered for the following season, they were renamed Total Network Solutions after the IT Service provider company of the same name.

​Austrian league side Casino Salzburg, UEFA Cup runners up in 1993/94 and UEFA Champions League group participants in 1994/95 were bought out by soft drinks company Red Bull in 2005, who in turn rebranded the club as Red Bull Salzburg in the process.  As well as the change of name, after the takeover, Red Bull also changed the clubs management and staff, the club colours from their original violet to the soft drink’s corporate colours of red and white as well as adding a small pair of wings as the motif of the new club crest, which denote Red Bull's commercial slogan of: ‘It gives you wings’.

The company also went one stage further by declaring Red Bull Salzburg to be: ‘a new club with no history’ and on their website claimed that the club were founded in 2005 in ignorance of Casino Salzburg’s history since their founding in 1933.  Not only were Red Bull Salzburg ordered to remove this claim by the Austrian FA, but supporters groups who were angered by Red Bull’s corporate hijacking of their club, formed a breakaway club similar in spirit to AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester, named SV Austria Salzburg – which was the original club’s name up until it was changed to Casino Salzburg in 1978.  The club now ply their trade in third tier of Austrian Football.

​Not only have club names been appropriated by corporate sponsors, but also there has been the less drastic but no less troubling rise stadium sponsorship in recent seasons.  The first such instance in English Football was with the now defunct former Football league side Scarborough, whose naming rights for their home stadium was sold to McCain Foods – earning their ground the nickname of the ‘Theatre of Chips’.  This was followed by Huddersfield Town’s Alfred McAlpine Stadium, which they share with Rugby League side Huddersfield Giants – named after the company that constructed the stadium itself.  This sponsorship deal lapsed in 2004 and the stadium has since been renamed the Galpharm Stadium and is now known as the John Smith’s Stadium.


The fact that clubs will be renewing their stadium sponsorship deals as regularly as their shirt sponsorship deals means that there is now a lack of permanency of a club’s stadium name, which in some way compromises a great deal of the club’s brand identity with it.  The first such instance of naming rights with a Premiership club was Middlesbrough’s Cellnet Riverside Stadium in 1995, however the permanent suffix of ‘Riverside’ in the stadium name was actually chosen by the Middlesbrough fans themselves and avoids the identity crisis that Huddersfield Town have had to endure with their post-1994 stadium. 

In North American sports, stadium naming rights have a history that goes back as far as the 1920s, however it is more likely to be accepted if the company in question has strong links to the local area. 


This is in some way relevant to the Reebok Stadium in Bolton, as the company were founded in the town back in 1895.  There has also been examples of club owners naming their club’s stadiums after their own companies, as Dave Whelan had done with Wigan Athletic’s newly built stadium in 1999 which was first named the JJB Stadium and then later the DW Stadium.  Manchester City’s owner, Sheikh Mansoor, also famously named their stadium after the airline he owns for a huge sponsorship fee, as a way to side step FFP rules aimed to prevent oligarch subsiding of Football clubs such as the Sheikh’s relationship with Manchester City. 

In November 2011, Newcastle United had angered their fans by renaming their stadium the Sports Direct Arena, after their owner Mike Ashley’s company.  The club said that it was a temporary solution to showcase the sponsorship opportunity to interested parties.  The club initially planned to allow sponsors to link their brand to the St James' Park title, as their North East rivals Middlesbrough had done with the Riverside Stadium.  The idea however was replaced by the offer to purchase full naming rights as the club believed that retaining the St. James’s Park name would not be as commercially attractive to sponsors.  The naming rights were eventually sold to Wonga.com in October 2012, along with Newcastle United’s shirt sponsorship for £8million a year for four years.  The internet-based payday loan company however decided to revert the stadium name back to its traditional identity as St. James’s Park. 

Wonga's decision however was more than likely designed to deflect the criticism that the company faced from MPs, consumer groups and trade unions for charging as much 4,214% APR on their loans.  The North East, which had a high proportion of public sector workers pre-credit crunch, has been greatly affected by the downturn and is no doubt rich pickings for a company referred to by Newcastle United season ticket holder and Labour MP Ian Lavery as ‘financial predators who make their money from people suffering from unemployment, low wages and in the greatest financial need’.

However, whether or not Newcastle United actually accept a deal for a corporate renaming of St. James’s Park, with over a century and a quarter of history behind it, it is highly unlikely that anyone is ever going to refer to Newcastle United’s ground by any other name.  For the supporters of clubs who accept a naming rights deal for a newly built stadium however, it’s almost impossible to avoid having their everyday speech colonised by commercialism when referring to their club’s home ground.  Particularly when the company in question has absolutely no legitimate link to the club in question other than through its chequebook.

Arsenal fanzines often do their very best to refer to their new Holloway based post-2006 home ground by anything other than the name ‘Emirates Stadium’, very often instead referring to it as Ashburton Grove – the name of the industrial area that stood on the site before the building of the Stadium.  In fact, when the deal with Fly Emirates was announced in October 2004, Mark Ritson of PR Week highlighted that ‘fans are already speculating online about what the real, 'fan-friendly' name will be for their new home; £100m buys the official naming rights, but not those of the fans’. It’s easy to forget that Arsenal’s previous home ground was officially called ‘Arsenal Stadium’ and never was ‘Highbury Stadium’ – as it was more commonly referred to. 


However, over a decade on, refer to Arsenal’s current ground as anything other than the ‘Emirates Stadium’ to the uninitiated and they will look at you bemused.  Also, as Arsenal had hoped to build their ‘European Super Club’ status on the back of opening their new stadium in 2006, it has to be said that a stadium named after a corporate sponsor is never going to command the same respect as names such as Old Trafford, Highbury, the Camp Nou or the San Siro.  As Neville Hadsley stated in his 2004 When Saturday Comes article on the subject of naming rights and the possibility of Liverpool moving from Anfield: ‘A sign in the tunnel saying ‘This is the Carlsberg Stadium’ is not going to intimidate anyone, is it?’.

Though shirt sponsorship, sponsorship deals for kit manufacturers and Stadium naming rights are logical given that a football kit and a football stadium are essential ingredients to a Football match, the actual number of official sponsors that Manchester United were locked into deals with by December 2016 totalled as many as sixty five, all of which is estimated to collectively reap as much as £272m per year for the Old Trafford club.  This includes their shirt sponsor Chevrolet and Kit supplier Adidas (unlike Arsenal, Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium has no official sponsorship naming rights as of yet).  However Manchester United also had an official logistics partnership with DHL and their previous relationship with Chevrolet before they became the shirt sponsor was as an official Automobile Partnership.  Both of these deals reaped as an eight figure sum for the Old Trafford club.

Manchester United have also had seven figure sponsorship deals with numerous companies in order to become - among other things - Manchester United’s official Beer, Wine, Travel Company, Online Gaming and Betting, airline, telecommunications, soft drink and savoury snack partners.  Quite why it is essential for a Football club to have an official soft drink and savoury snack partner is anyone’s guess. 

As David Wagering would state in his 2004 When Saturday Comes article on Sponsorship in Football: ‘However laughable those first shirt deals may seem in comparison with today’s arrangements…there was at least something of a financial case for them’.

Self-evidently though, not all clubs – even within the Premiership - are as equally attractive to potential sponsors.  There’s a huge gulf in difference between what Manchester United and Crystal Palace can reap on this front.  Even though Crystal Palace have managed to return to the Premiership after an eight year wait, It’s highly unlikely that there are any companies willing to wave a seven figure sum before them to become the club’s official savoury snack partner and as David Wagering rightly points out: ‘Denying top-division clubs the opportunity to rent out this space would remove some of the tilt from an already heavily sloped playing field. But, like penalty shoot-outs and promotion play-offs, it’s almost as if football can’t remember coping without it’.

And while four decades ago footballing minnows such as Kettering Town and Eintracht Braunschweig saw the outlet for corporate sponsorship as a financial lifeline, in today’s uber-capitalist football world it self-evidently has created an insurmountable chasm between Footballing giants such as the Manchester United and Arsenals of the Football world and even sides not that much further down in the Premiership table – such as Everton and West Ham, let alone the Brentfords and the Barnets of the Football world.