Innovation - the exception to the rule
FIFA’s annual report in 2021 found that there are over 4,400 professional football clubs around the world. Each of these clubs has their own fans, history and (crucially for this article) their very own shirt.
As discussed in previous articles on football shirts, these carefully chosen pieces of fabric serve a much greater purpose than their original utilitarian function.
Today, football shirts aren’t just worn by the players and hardcore fans. These days you can spot a Stoke City shirt skating down Venice Beach promenade or a St.Pauli kit bustling through the streets of Bombay as they’ve become universal fashion pieces.
A trademark staple of the modern football shirt is of course the shirt sponsor, with the vast majority of the world’s 4,400 professional football clubs donning at least one (if not more) sponsors on their kit.
Despite the large number of shirt sponsors which exist across football clubs all around the world, most teams and their partnering organisations choose the conventional form of shirt sponsorship. But like any good rule, there are some exceptions. In this feature, we explore these as we uncover the most innovative shirt sponsorships in football.
Sponsorships, including shirt sponsorships, are one of the main sources of revenue for most football clubs. Without this financial income, many teams would struggle to compete or even be able to operate. Some clubs however, have found a way around placing the logo of a brand on their shirts, and instead chosen to partner with a charity.
Clubs can either completely forsake the shirt sponsorship income and see the financial loss as a commitment to the charitable cause, or work with their existing shirt sponsor to replace the business’ logo with that of the charity.
Levante UD are a great example of the latter, as they utilised the power of football shirts to help raise awareness for breast cancer.
The Spanish second-division side teamed up with their usual shirt sponsor Marcos Automocion to replace the brand’s logo with a shirt symbolising a mastectomy - the surgical removal of breast tissue often performed on those affected by breast cancer.
Levante’s compatriots FC Barcelona have also used shirt sponsorships for good, with the Catalan club partnering with UNICEF between 2006-2011, raising awareness for the charity around the world through their global following.
Popular culture on the pitch
Although Barcelona are most famous for their beautiful style of football, it’s their shirt sponsorships that have once again caught our eye in this section where we celebrate popular culture making its way on to the pitch.
Through their partnership with music streaming platform Spotify, the club has released several one of a kind kits, each celebrating a music artist by emblazoning their brand across the shirt for El Clasico, the matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
Canadian rapper Drake was first to feature, followed by Barcelona-born singer Rosalia, whilst British rock legends Rolling Stones are set to feature next.
Outside of Barcelona, but staying in Spain, both Madrid sides Getafe and Atlético Madrid have branded some innovative ‘one-off’ shirt sponsors on their kits.
Atlético Madrid’s famous partnership with Columbia Pictures between 2003 and 2005 saw some of the biggest films placed on the famous red and white kits, including Spiderman 2, Zoro and Hellboy.
Burger King’s sponsorship with Getafe is perhaps the most obscure on this list as the fast food company combined their front-of-shirt sponsorship with the print out of their mascot on the inside of the kit - revealing the face when players lifted the shirt over their head.
Musical sponsorship hitting the right note
Although it may seem that Spanish football teams have a monopoly on innovative shirt sponsorships, our final category sees us venture outside of the Iberian peninsula and travel further north to the British Isles.
With a population obsessed with both football and music, it is perhaps no great surprise that the majority of the entries from this category come from the UK.
From Fat Boy Slim sponsoring Brighton and Hove Albion in the 1990s to West Ham releasing a limited edition Iron Maiden kit, there’s been no shortage of music stars sponsoring football shirts in the UK. Even American rapper 50 Cent has gotten in on the act, currently sponsoring Welsh under-14 girls team AFC Rumney.
Global superstar Ed Sheeran’s current shirt sponsorship of his boyhood team Ipswich Town is perhaps the most famous example, with the singer choosing to promote his tour through the club’s shirt.
Outside of the UK, German rock band Die Toten Hosen has had a strong bond with second-tier side Fortuna Düsseldorf for over 30 years. The band has sponsored the club’s shirt on several occasions, first in 2001, and most recently in 2020.
Innovate to engage mass audiences
One of the main reasons behind organisations using sports sponsorship as part of their marketing mix is sport’s unique ability to not only reach mass audiences, but to also engage these audiences.
By placing their brand alongside the fans’ beloved team, the brand will automatically engage the team’s audience, but by employing some of the innovative shirt sponsorship tactics we’ve seen above, brands can transcend individual club audiences and spark much wider engagement.
The likes of Barcelona and Levante have shown how this innovative approach can work successfully, but if there is one lesson for brands to learn from the most successful shirt sponsorships of all time, it’s to take the time to understand the culture and community surrounding the football club and adapt their partnership to align with this.