The FA Cup is currently faced with a quandary, having been unable to secure a sponsor for this year’s competition for the first time since 2006. In contrast, the less prestigious League Cup (currently known as the Capital One Cup), has never had any problems attracting investors.
Budweiser had been official partners to the FA Cup since 2011, in an £8 million-a-year deal. At first glance, that price may seem a bit steep, but the deal covers more than a dozen televised games and deep integration down through to amateur levels, all with strong Budweiser branding, so the cost-per-game is quite competitive. There had been speculation in November 2014 that another brand was willing to take the competition, but talks broke down, presumably around fears of getting insufficient return on their investment.
Given the history and the nature of the competition, it is difficult to imagine how the FA Cup has found itself in this position; amateur side Blyth Spartans were this year’s surprise package, and even found a new fan in Barack Obama, who is now following them on Twitter after their heroic performances saw them through to the 3rd round this year. There are incredible stories every year in the FA Cup, and they form the most interesting fixtures of the season. AFC Wimbledon recently hosted Liverpool, and the sight of England legend Steven Gerrard striding around a 2,000-seater stadium does not happen very often, but when it does, it’s very watchable indeed. These mismatched games always generate real interest, and provide a much-needed spotlight on the lower leagues.
In terms of sponsorship, however, the League Cup has maintained one key difference which has kept sponsors interested, despite playing second fiddle to the FA Cup – and that’s adaptability to naming rights. Over the years, it has been known as the Milk Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup, the Worthington Cup and now, the Capital One Cup. It’s more illustrious cousin is a little more reticent to give away naming rights, we’ve seen examples of “the FA Cup: Sponsored by Littlewoods”, and “The AXA-Sponsored FA Cup”, both titles are a tad cumbersome, and tend to get lost in translation with the public. Sponsors, therefore, can take greater ownership of the League Cup, and see it as better value overall.
It is also entirely possible that sponsors fear a backlash if they took the complete naming rights to the FA Cup. It is almost too strong a brand to compete with. If, for example it became known as the “Budweiser Cup” this year, there would undoubtedly be a raft of complaints in the media, arguing that the old “magic of the cup” was disappearing, lost to corporate interference. The fact that the League Cup isn’t as prestigious actually helps in this regard. We’ll never see the “Budweiser British Open” or the “Budweiser Ryder Cup” for the exact same reasons. Sponsors can only place themselves adjacent to such historic events or they’ll find themselves in the firing-line.
Naming rights are a minefield; there is a fine line between successful and unsuccessful branding. Often, they can be met with ire from fans, who see it as another example of the increasingly corporate nature of sports, and an erosion of local identity, whilst there are other examples of sponsored naming rights being introduced seamlessly.
The real difference between the good and bad examples lie in corporate tactfulness, and in acknowledgement of history. Newcastle United’s ill-fated attempt at changing their iconic ground to the “Sports Direct Arena @ St. James’ Park” provoked ire from locals – the new signage was defaced within a week, and eventually restored to its original moniker. The successful examples – the names which stuck – include Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, because it was completely new and never known as anything else, as well as Ireland’s Aviva Stadium.
There are plenty of reasons why the Aviva’s re-branding worked so well, the first is that although the old Lansdowne Road venue had been in place for years, it was in dire need of repair. Once it re-opened as the Aviva, it had a completely different atmosphere and feel to it, and represented a new Ireland. The insurance firm did well by attaching themselves to this feeling of progress, and there are very few who still refer to it by its old title, despite still being situated at the same address.
The FAI has benefitted greatly from this transformation, and has found it much easier to attract new business partners in recent years. Their most recent revenue figures from sponsorship deals comes in at an impressive €8.1 million. Long-serving sponsors such as Lucozade, Ford, SSE Airtricity, E-Flow, 3 Mobile and Aviva themselves are clearly getting the kind of exposure they’re looking for, without having to tread on the toes of history.
While The FA Cup has an enviable heritage and despite its vast potential to reach global audiences – the £8 million price-tag would be much more attractive if potential sponsors could identify innovative engagement channels to complement the traditional.
On-site LED advertising clearly creates brand recognition and excitement, however, it’s the opportunities around digital and social sponsorship – allowing for deeper discourse between brand and fan, that are beginning to resonate most clearly with regards ROI for brand sponsors.
In this respect, the FA have investigated certain digital and social sponsorship enhancements – however, it would appear that these aren’t wide-ranging enough. A partnership with RadiumOne ad-tech firm was announced to drive better targeted advertising but a lack of clarity on how this could be implemented across the 480k+ FA Cup fans and 3million+ England National Team fans on their official social channels, means sponsors haven’t recognised any additional benefit.
Ultimately, there is no point in Budweiser or anyone else becoming principal sponsor of the competition if their advertising rights are limited to perimeter advertising and some cheap-looking branded tassels on the cup itself. On paper, the competition has everything – historic value, shock value, but maybe notcommercial value for money.
It’s about as compelling a competition as you could ask for, but sponsors are a lot more aware of their options in the market these days, and may not see the FA Cup as the full package in terms of engaging fans in the digital sphere. It would be advisable for the FA to re-think their digital and social strategies, specifically with a view to offering enhanced value to potential partners.