It’s the ultimate status symbol, a level of exposure achieved by few companies — but one available to any company that’s willing and able to pay a hefty price. It’s an honor that costs millions of dollars, and in return, your company’s logo is on the TV screens of millions of people every week.
Sponsoring a football club — proper football, that is — is more than just a business transaction. It’s about using the world’s most watched sport to promote your brand. Getting your company’s logo on the shirt of a team like Liverpool or Real Madrid means tying your brand to a global icon. And for decades, it’s been a route taken by emerging tech companies, flush with cash to burn and a name to earn.
But these sponsorships actually reveal something about the tech industry as a whole: when you trace the history of these commercial deals across the decades, patterns emerge. Rather than individual companies, entire sectors of the industry — from cars to consumer tech to gambling websites — seem to jump into the sport at once, signaling their rise to, or the desire to, dominate global markets where football is also part of everyday life. It’s no coincidence, for example, that mobile phone companies turned to sponsoring football clubs during the beginning of the new millenium: with handsets becoming increasingly common and 3G just around the corner, companies like Samsung and Vodafone wasted no time in paying record amounts to some of the most successful clubs in England.
Rest of World took a look at some of the more memorable shirt sponsorship deals in football — from Sony’s affiliation with Italy’s champions to Rakuten’s deal with a Spanish giant — and what they say about the rise and fall of the tech sectors those companies represented.
Japanese consumer electronics brands were among the first tech companies to dive into shirt sponsorship. Their logos adorned the shirts of clubs from England to Italy across the ’80s and ’90s, mirroring the rise of those companies in the wider world: these were the decades dominated by the Walkman and the Game Boy.
Some of those companies were household names before their sponsorship of the English football teams; others used it to secure their place as a global brand. Believe it or not, Samsung Mobile was a small player in the world of handsets when their deal began with Chelsea in 2005. By the time it ended in 2015, Samsung was the biggest smartphone maker in the world. (Chelsea was pretty successful too.)
Not all sponsorship deals work out. Rakuten is one of Japan’s leading e-commerce platforms, but putting their logo on the shirts of one of the most recognized football teams did little to expand their brand abroad. Kejian, a mobile phone maker, may have thought it was onto something great when it signed up to sponsor Everton, which also landed two Chinese players as part of the deal. Kejian folded in 2013, but the sponsorship deal was still a groundbreaker: at that point, the company only sold its phones in China. Kejian might have been the first company to use the shirts of an English football club to target an audience halfway across the world, but it wasn’t the last.
Kejian’s idea might seem counterintuitive, but the English Premier League is a global product: the league claims matches are shown in “188 of the world’s 193 countries recognised by the United Nations.” In the 2010s, another rapidly growing tech sector took advantage of this: online gambling companies. By the end of the decade, half of the league’s 20 teams had gambling logos on the fronts of their shirts, many of them for companies targeting audiences in Asia.
Which sector will dominate the 2020s? Edtech platforms are starting to take an interest, as seen with Colombia’s Platzi, which sponsors Spanish La Liga team Granada, and Indian unicorn Byju’s, which sponsors the Kerala Blasters. But if you take a look at the wider world of sports, the answer is obvious: crypto. From the NBA to Formula 1, crypto logos are everywhere, and football is no different. Binance’s logo adorns the shirts of Lazio, while fellow Italian club Inter Milan is already on its second blockchain-based shirt sponsor.
It’s unclear what impact the market meltdown will have on crypto companies and whether they’ll still have the money for high-profile sporting sponsorships. But as the past decades have shown: there’s always another set of tech companies ready to pay up.