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Ian Herbert: From Aeroflot to Thai batteries, it's a brand new global ball game

Sport Matters: The rewards are enormous but the stakes are high
  • @ianherbs

We all know how far Manchester City have travelled since the days when they paraded the name of Brother typewriters on their shirts but this week took them into new realms of sponsorship when they announced the name of the club’s official car battery partner in Thailand.

Step forward GS Battery – as good as it gets in the Thai car battery field, we’re reliably told – which joins the drinks brand est Cola, recently signed up as City’s official soft drink partner in the country. If this sounds like an obscure line of business then be assured that it is not. As the top Premier League clubs begin their July exodus into Asia, on tour, they take with them commercial staff who will be involved in a blizzard of activity to ring up the revenues from what are effectively licensing agreements: permission to use the club’s name, which the leading sports business commentator Richard Gillis compares to the way the Olympics and World Cup sell their names, and is just as tightly policed. Manchester United have their own brand protection department and invite those who see United’s crest being used by those who don’t pay for the right to email them. Woe betide them. “Use without permission is counterfeiting,” United warn.

United have matched City’s activity in Thailand this week, with their manager, David Moyes, paying immediate respects at a Bangkok hospital on Thursday to the king of the country (who is unwell) before dispatching Wayne Rooney (who is unfit) home. This is a land grab for the Asian market and United are masters at it. They added Gloops, Japan’s leading social gaming group, to their sponsorship roster this summer, along with a Mexican bank and an Indonesian financial services outfit: just three more names for a colourful list of around 40 firms, including an official tyre partner in Indonesia, a soft drinks partner in China, a paint partner, a motorcycle partner in Thailand and more. United were the first to identify that some of these deals could be global and some regional, like the Thai and Indonesian ones, says Gillis, who writes on these subjects at a great site – unofficialpartner.co.uk. United have been miles ahead of the rest with their commercial model, he says.

City have been fast catching up, though. One of the benefits of deals like est Cola is the huge free TV advertising for the club it creates in the country – with City’s logo on the drink adverts which seem to pop up on almost every commercial break. The sponsorship cash is the significant bit, though, part of the new income stream which helped City’s commercial revenue almost double to £112m in 2011-12, according to the recent Deloitte review of football finance.

Some of these deals are of more interest to the players than you’d think. One of the reasons United have stuck with Hublot as their “official timekeeper” – a deal which doesn’t cost the Swiss firm the earth – is that the players like wearing the watches, though executives have to sign an agreement to hand them back if they leave the firm. Chevrolets are a fairly popular new perk, from the firm that’s on the front of United’s shirts from the start of the  2014-15 season, though if you choose to take one, you’re not allowed to drive to training in a Porsche or your wife’s Ford Fiesta.

A less glamorous partner was Aeroflot, which became United’s “global carrier” this week in a deal which could bring in about £40m. The Russian airline’s chief executive, Vitaly Savelyev,  declared it “expensive” but he looked very happy. The bonds between Old Trafford and the Russian airline haven’t seemed that obvious since Andrei Kanchelskis needed a way home in the 1990s. But Aeroflot, as Gillis points out, wants to become more global and less purely Russian, in the same way that Turkish Airlines (whose departure from the United family made way for Aeroflot), Emirates and Etihad have all sought to escape the national image their names create. All have launched into big sport sponsorship deals as a way of presenting themselves as international players. Sponsoring CSKA Moscow, as Aeroflot have done, is no longer enough. With United, they are literally and metaphorically in the global league.

United group managing director, Richard Arnold, said at the Aeroflot launch that the club had 18 million “followers” in Russia, returning us to the club’s rather questionable measure of how popular they actually are across the world. Arnold claimed last year they had 659 million “followers” across the world – “from the person who holds up the flag to the person getting up at 4am to watch our Champions League games”. We were sceptical, but he insisted that it was “semantics” whether these are fans as we know them; Gillis quite rightly questions what loyalty to the clubs such “followers” actually have.

The 659 million figure, of course, is just the sponsorship sell and the battery, drinks and motorcycle firms aren’t worried about interrogating it. It’s the association with a global brand which matters to them, far more than the popularity of the club they’ve adopted. They’re buying into the story of a global Premier League, which is played out 6,000 miles away but unravels in their living rooms via the league’s international TV rights deals.

Millions of followers – on Facebook or any other medium – do not equate to loyalty, though, however much customer data the clubs are building up on these individuals. The potentially worrying bit for the clubs is how promiscuous the tyre, bike and gaming firms, along with the followers, might actually be. United are not like the Adidas or Nike brands, physically present on the main streets of China and Thailand. They merely pass through at this time, once a year.

“If a club disappears [from the elite] for a few seasons, will the fans still be there and will the companies?” Gillis asks. “There’s a flakiness about it. They’re not fans with a sense of loyalty.” The rewards are enormous for United, City and a few others as they build a wall between themselves and the rest of the Premier League but, as Gillis says, the stakes are high. They have to remain at the top. Belonging in the Champions League is essential.

To which the clubs will say that they’re not disappearing anywhere. At City, where an international desk of all nationalities now translates the club’s website into scores of languages, new manager Manuel Pellegrini exuded a panache and maturity at his first press conference this week, which suggested he is capable of taking the club to great places. “Only five?” he said when asked about his chief executive Ferran Soriano’s trophy aims. But you see what kind of pressure he is under. The car battery users of Thailand are depending on him.