In the 1960s, the advent of pop culture and introduction of satellite hearalded a worldwide shift – and football felt the change. Football clubs like Manchester United became more image conscious and focused on turning their entity into a brand as the world turned to technology for its entertainment for the very first time.
With an intent to foster strong fan bases, the first copyrighted replica shirts sold to the public were introduced through a deal with Leeds United’s manager Don Revie and Leicester-based knitwear company Admiral in 1973. Manchester United, another forerunner in footballing enterprise, partnered with Admiral in a similar deal in 1975.
The driving force behind all ‘clubs’ expanding and diversifying is little secret; money. When you look at the costs involved in football, it doesn’t take an expert to understand that money plays a quintessential role in the game. To make more money, clubs began to invest in loyalty among fans, turning lovers of the game into a thriving and forceful consumer base with an ancillary love for their services and products.
And these brands play both home and away, gathering iconic status on an international level. Club brands such as Manchester United and Arsenal are known far and wide, rather than the players themselves raising club profiles, the brands they are associated with nowadays carry a more powerful punch. What’s more, with technology shrinking the world and digitalisation granting easy access to international football, Manchester United et al can now be everyone’s ‘local’ club.
“In the next 20 years, the number of people who will be watching matches through internet live in India, China, Africa etc. is going to be huge,” sports journalist of 25 years, Martin Smith commented upon Sky’s purchasing of the Premier League broadcasting rights for £5.136billion. “The clubs have identified their market in the internet realm and even if the clubs don’t make [money] straight away eventually it will,” Smith explained.
“However it’s important for the football clubs to realise that the relationship between what they sell and what the product actually is on the pitch has to be maintained. Part of being a fan is to be loyal and fans can be loyal only for so long especially the international fans,” Smith continued. “The emerging fans now say who are between the age of five to ten years will pick the teams that has been most attractive on the football pitch as these new fans need new heroes and if the teams don’t cater to their demands, they will simply find some other team to cheer for.”
And, it is not just the clubs’ own brand that they need to protect but the incredibly lucrative partnerships and corporate allies also involved in helping the team directly connect with their worldwide fan base. Chelsea FC has recently linked up with Indian company Wipro that will help the club to transform the digital experience of its followers. Similarly, Manchester United recently signed a deal with Indian company HCL that will help them do the same, also launching an initiative called ‘ILOVEUNITEDINDIA’ through which it plans to connect with Indian fans of the club.
Manchester United Group’s Managing Director, Richard Arnold comments: “Football is a hugely popular sport in India and we are overwhelmed by the passion and support we receive from our 35 million followers in the country.”
Similarly, recognising this growing following in India, Manchester United’s Global Ambassador, and former player, Quinton Fortune said, “With 35 million followers in India, we wanted to ensure we were doing something special to share our passion for Manchester United with this huge fan base; it’s simply too big a figure to ignore and we recognise that football is becoming a popular sport in India.”
By building a brand that is bigger than football, a number of UK clubs have managed to break the ‘local loyalty’ mould of our yesteryears. Football, like fashion, is seemingly now a trend to be followed; but unless performance remains on point and fans feel like they are getting goals for their gold, how long will their loyalty last?
Words: Taruku Srivastava
Photography: From Adam Rubin's photo series of football fans in the UK