Sponsors reach for the stars to dazzle clients: Advertising: sports personalities are increasingly in demand for the skills they display off the field

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The Independent Online
WHEN Martin Offiah, the rugby league winger, joined Wigan from Widnes for pounds 440,000 there was a power in the negotiations besides Offiah, his manager and the lawyers for the two sides. It was Norweb, the Lancashire- based electricity company.

Norweb was already Wigan's sponsor, but for this transaction the company came up with a special package to enable the club to sign Offiah. It involved Norweb paying some of sponsorship money in advance to fund the transfer fee. In return, Offiah was contracted to make a certain number of personal appearances at Norweb corporate functions, so the company could herald the events with a 'Come and meet Martin Offiah' invitation.

The deal shed light on what a company such as Norweb (which can hardly hope to sell more electricity as a result) really expects from a sponsorship agreement. The advertising benefits are par for the course: advertising hoardings around the ground, a name or logo on the players' shirts, use of the club's facilities for company functions. But today companies are paying more attention to the finer details of sponsorship, such as the meet-and-greet factor. This means companies are particularly keen on amiable, articulate players who can mingle with businessmen and hold a conversation with a managing director.

'Martin's very good, he's very personable,' Martin Barnett, Norweb's head of corporate affairs, said of Offiah.

Rodney Walker, chairman of Wakefield Trinity rugby league club, said that such 'ring fencing' of sponsorship deals - where a company targets an individual player - is likely to become more common.

'A number of companies have indicated that - although they would not be interested in a general sponsorship deal where their money was just absorbed into the club's revenues - they would be interested in sponsoring something specific, such as a new stand, or an individual player.'

Wakefield tried this when they attempted to lure Jonathan Davies from Widnes earlier this season. The club tried to raise the money from local businesses, but the deal fell through because Wakefield could not raise enough cash and was concerned that Davies' contract (thought to be about pounds 200,000 for three years) would disrupt the club's current wage structure.

While sponsorship deals in football have not yet drifted towards sponsoring individual players, companies are becoming increasingly aggressive in what they demand in return for their money.

Carlsberg-Tetley's deal with Liverpool Football Club, worth pounds 1m a year over the next four seasons, is an example. It has several stipulations:

The right to put the Carlsberg logo on the club kit.

Six perimeter boards at Anfield which are exclusive - that is, no other beer company advertising will be allowed at the ground.

Exclusive product supply at Anfield - only Carlsberg lager and Tetley bitter available in the club's bars.

Exclusive advertising in match programmes; again, no other beer company ads.

The right to discuss special appearances with the players.

This final point is important. The deal stipulates that the man-of-the-match and one other player will visit the sponsor's hospitality suite after the game. Other appearances at company functions must be negotiated separately. Again, the company prefers senior players, such as John Barnes and Ian Rush, rather than stars of the future who might get tongue-tied.

Carlsberg seems in no doubt about the value of the sponsorship. 'Liverpool are known around the world and Carlsberg is sold in 140 countries, so it makes a good fit,' a spokesman said. 'The hospitality suite at Anfield has also been a great success with guest publicans and clients.'

Some companies do more than just try to ally themselves with a high-profile team that wins cups and regularly appears on television. JVC, the hi-fi and video company which has sponsored Arsenal for 12 years, finds the deal an appropriate fit in several ways.

Gerald Barc, JVC's deputy managing director, said: 'When JVC was not so well known, we wanted to associate the company with a household name so there would be an acceptance of the brand. Someone walking into a shop would feel more familiar with it.'

There were other reasons for the choice. Arsenal, the only team never to have been relegated from the top division, matched the high-profile credentials JVC was seeking. It is a London club, where JVC has its UK headquarters, and the club plays in red-and-white, JVC's house colours.

Other clubs must envy the longevity of Arsenal's deal with JVC. So might the Football League, which has had four sponsors for the League Cup in the last 12 years: the Milk Marketing Board (it was known as the Milk Cup), Littlewoods, Rumbelows (for two seasons) and now Coca-Cola.

The deal with Coca-Cola, thought to be worth pounds 2.2m over two years with an option to extend, is the best yet. But the League's deal with Barclays, which sponsors Divisions One, Two and Three, runs out at the end of this season.

(Photograph omitted)