Money: Strikers, sweepers and super savers

Football clubs have found a new way of exploiting their fans' loyalty, writes Stephen Spurdon

Football clubs have long made surprisingly large amounts of money by selling their supporters replica kit; an increasing number of clubs are taking advantage of their customer loyalty to sell financial services.

Instead of being surprised at the the notion of a Tottenham Hotspur savings account, many analysts feel it's natural for clubs to cash in on a money- making opportunity. As marketing expert Bob Hands, of Affinity Solutions, says: "Fans have an attachment to their club which may mean that they will buy anything from them."

Many of the 92 Premier and Nationwide league clubs are now generating funds by offering branded credit cards and savings accounts. A significant number are moving into insurance and even investments.

The first football club savings account, launched by West Bromwich building society for West Bromwich Albion in September 1995, has so far made pounds 500,000 for the club. As is the case with most of these accounts, the building society pays the club a bonus worth 1 per cent of the total balance of the account over the year.

They may add up for the clubs, but do these services make financial sense for the punters?

Savers get a range of benefits including money-off season tickets and commission-free travel money. The West Bromwich branch-based account has a minimum balance of pounds 250 and the current gross APR is 2.75 per cent, rising to 3.25 per cent gross APR for pounds 5,000 plus.

The Lambeth Building Society account, customised for Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham United and Queens Park Rangers is the pick of the bunch, offering 4.05 per cent for minimum holdings of pounds 250.

Better rates are available elsewhere, such as Tesco's instant access account paying 4.5 per cent from pounds 1 upwards but football savers do get extra incentives. Leeds United's account with Leeds & Holbeck building society, with a paltry starting rate of 1.5 per cent for pounds 100, offers two free tickets to non-premium home games (that is, against Charlton) and 10 per cent off club store products.

Thousands of people are happy to carry a club credit card. One of the biggest players is Bank of Scotland, which provides affinity card services to eight of the FA Premier League clubs, including Arsenal and Blackburn, 30 clubs in the Nationwide League and Hearts and St Johnstone in Scotland. These cards, which have no annual fee, have an introductory rate of 11.9 per cent for six months, which then reverts to 19.9 per cent. Clubs get 25p for every pounds 100 spent using the card, plus pounds 2.50 when you open the account, pounds 2.60 if it is in use after eight months and pounds 2.50 after 20 months. The Tottenham Hotspur affinity card supplied by MBNA is a better deal. The no-annual-fee card has an introductory rate of 6.9 per cent with a standard APR of 17.9 per cent.

The next level of services involves general insurance such as home, motor and travel. The biggest player is broker JLT Direct Club, which does business with clubs including Derby, Ipswich and Aston Villa.

Spokesman Philip Zeidler said that on average the clubs make pounds 10 on each policy. He said: "We like to think that this is a win, win, win situation for the insurer, club and supporter."

A few clubs have gone further, and offer investment deals. However, previous examples do not offer grounds for optimism. One case involved the sale of personal equity plans to Celtic fans through Caledonian Investments. That ended two years ago when Caledonian Investment's boss was jailed for fraud.

This has not dissuaded a small group of clubs that have launched pensions and investment schemes. The most highly developed service is from Leeds United Financial Services, a tied agent for Allied Dunbar.

Adam Pearson, the Leeds United finance director, admitted that the club was receiving a better-than-average commission rate from Allied Dunbar but that this was not being passed on to the fans in the form of lower charges. He said: "We feed it back as a rebate on season tickets. So, for instance, if they take out a pension they may get a pounds 150 saving on the price of a season ticket."

Jackie Blyth, of the Financial Services Authority, said the watchdog had not received any complaints concerning football clubs' services. Whatever happens, there will be more football-linked finance products in future. The market is too lucrative to ignore.

n West Bromwich Albion Premier account, 0990 143668; Lambeth (QPR/Spurs/West Ham), 0345 887777; Leeds & Holbeck Privilege Savings (Leeds United), 0800 072 8738.

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