The football team dominating everyone’s social media feeds recently has not been Chelsea, Manchester City or Arsenal but rather unfancied non-league side Sutton United.
Following a shock FA cup victory over Premier League side Burnley, the amateur club clinched a 5th round home tie against the aforementioned Gunners. Although they lost that fixture, they have continued to be the talk of social media, although unfortunately that was more due to a pie and a betting company than their plucky performance on the pitch. As a fan engagement professional working with Sportego, the entire situation is of great interest to me.
Finding the correct sponsorship partner for a club is never a simple task. As well as having the financial package to consider, the sponsor must fit with the general ethos of the organisation… and their fanbase. That can be a tricky decision regardless of a particular club’s status, but it is especially difficult when the club in question are aware that their time in the spotlight is likely to be fleeting and they need to “make hay while the sun shines”.
In the run up to the game, a deal was struck between the club and “Sun Bet” a company partly owned by News International and featuring the livery of the Sun newspaper, to sponsor the shirts for the Arsenal game.
The fee was believed to be anything from £70-90k depending on which rumoured estimate you believe. Regular local sponsors Green Go Waste agreed to move the back of the shirt in an act of remarkable consideration, demonstrating the kind of selflessness you find so regularly at the heart of grass-roots football clubs.
So, it all worked out well for sponsor and club? Not exactly. The club’s decision led to massive criticism by outsiders and the club’s own fanbase alike, rumours spread of the club suppressing negative fan opinion on an independent forum and – as a result of an ill-advised novelty bet on the sponsors website – the club’s folk hero reserve goalkeeper has had to resign from the club.
The Sun newspaper’s interest in sponsoring the “underdog-in-the-FA-Cup” is not a new strategy, they have struck similar one-off deals with other teams in previous years; notably Scarborough in 2004 and Farnborough Town in 2005. Neither is the association between a betting company and a football club unusual in the modern landscape. Gambling companies contribute an estimated £80 million per year to football teams for various levels of partnership, and 50% of Premier League teams have betting companies as their chief shirt sponsor at a total cost of £36.3m* per year.
So why has this sponsorship of Sutton United drawn such criticism? Unfortunately, it is as much a matter of timing as anything else. The Sun newspaper has long been the subject of derision among many football fans who observed their treatment of Liverpool fans post-Hillsborough, but that animosity has intensified in recent years; firstly following the Hillsborough inquests of 2016, and only this past week with the decision of Liverpool FC to rescind the paper’s press access to the club. That ill feeling extends to Sutton fans who saw the association of their local club with that sponsor as being greedy and not in keeping with the values they hold dear.
An occasion which should have been a time of celebration, never to be forgotten, became the focus of division and anger.
That is the most important lesson I feel which needs to be learned from Sutton United. The considerations of the fanbase must be central to the selection of commercial partners, as it is that fan relationship which will continue long after the sponsor has departed the scene. It can be difficult for clubs to correctly gauge the opinion of their fans, and that is where the services of Fan Engagement companies can be invaluable. While it could be argued that at the most basic level, the association has worked out for both parties with Sutton United receiving money and the sponsor publicity, commercial partnerships at their best can be so much more fulfilling. As Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore discovered in the movie “Indecent Proposal”, sometimes it is just better to say NO to an offer, even if it seems like a proposal too good to turn down.
* Sponsorship figures as per Totalsportek.com