The financial power of football continues to grow. According to the Deloitte Football Money League 2023, the total revenue for the top 20 revenue generating clubs in 2021/2022 stood at €9.2 billion, an increase of 13% compared to the €8.2 billion in the previous year. Football clubs continue to look for commercial opportunities to generate and grow their revenue. The top 20 Money League clubs have generated €3.5 billion in commercial revenue in 2020/2021 which is only 6% less than the record high achieved pre-pandemic (which is not as significant a fall as many had forecast).
In this short article, we are going to explore some of the less traditional ways football clubs have been able to generate commercial revenue, as well as some of the legal and regulatory challenges they are facing in doing so.
Betting partnerships have proved highly lucrative for Premier League clubs, although this source of revenue could be impacted as the UK government looks set to release its Gambling White Paper, which could lead to top-tier English clubs voluntarily removing front of shirt sponsorships with betting firms. The UK government’s proposed Gambling White Paper follows a UK government review into the 2005 Gambling Act, after a House of Lords committee suggested that Premier League clubs should not be allowed to advertise betting companies on their shirts from 2023. Currently, betting logos can be found on a number of teams’ match day shirts. Eight out of twenty Premier League clubs currently display gambling companies on the front of their shirts (though betting partners are banned from junior replica kits). Since the 2017/18 season, teams have also been able to sell a 100cm2 area on their left sleeves to commercial partners leading to betting logos like 12Bet, Lovebet and LT being displayed on the sleeves of teams like West Brom, Burnley and Aston Villa.
As well as shirts, betting companies frequently secure pitch side perimeter advertising. Whole stands and stadiums have even been named after sponsors, with the bet365 stadium in Stoke City being the most obvious example. Sponsorships have also extended beyond match-day kits. Training kit sponsorships have provided another commercial opportunity, with teams like Manchester City promoting betting brands during training sessions and warmups. Even the English Football League itself is sponsored by Sky Bet, who in response to the UK government’s proposed Gambling White Paper highlighted that any outright gambling sponsorship ban for its 72 members would cost clubs an average of £40m a year.
We expect to see further developments in this space in 2023.
In February 2023, the UK government set out new plans to regulate crypto and by doing so, protect consumers. The proposals being presented are an extension of previous efforts made by HM Treasury, which were primarily centered around stablecoins and the promotion of cryptoassets in the financial industry. The backdrop of increasing regulatory appetite (mirrored across the EU and the US) has led to greater caution in the crypto sponsorship space. Crypto.com pulled out of what would have been a record £428m deal to replace Gazprom as the Champions League’s primary sponsor in September 2022 because of concerns around increased industry regulation. In the UK, the Cryptoassets Taskforce which brought together the Treasury, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Bank of England has been considering the UK’s policy and regulatory approach to cryptoassets, adding to the uncertainty for cryptocurrency companies.
Cryptocurrency sponsorships in football remain a valuable source of revenue generation, notwithstanding the troubles a number of crypto companies have faced in meeting their payment obligations (following their exposure to the FTX scandal, and greater regulatory scrutiny). While companies like WhaleFin may be terminating partnerships early such as their sleeve deal with Chelsea FC and their front of shirt deal with Atletico Madrid, other large crypto sponsorship deals are still being pursued. Research by The Athletic found that nearly all of last year’s Premier League clubs had at least one crypto sponsor at some level. As an example, Manchester City are expected to be earning more than $20 million per season from its expanded partnership with crypto exchange OKX in which OKX became the club’s official training kit partner for the 2022-23 season. The deal also sees select Manchester City players star in “crypto education” content produced by OKX, as well as an in-stadium presence across the Etihad Stadium.
Premium / Cross-Over Opportunities
Some of the world’s largest football clubs continue to position themselves in the premium space, offering premium commercial opportunities for partners and sponsors. Premium deals help provide luxury brands with access to a global cohort of high net-worth individuals. Paris Saint-Germain has recently agreed a deal with Purnell, a Swiss luxury watchmaker, further demonstrating the broad appeal the club has, and its ability to continue to appeal to partners in the luxury goods sector. Similarly, Chelsea FC has collaborated with Hublot for a number of years, and the Swiss watch brand continues to be the club’s official timekeeper.
Clubs are also entering into premium co-branded product lines, fusing together different sports, cultures and styles. In January 2023, Le Bron James unveiled a full collection with Nike and Liverpool FC, (a club he’s been a minority owner of since 2011). This co-branded line is reminiscent of the PSG and Air Jordan partnership, which is likely to have served as an influence for Liverpool, LeBron and Nike. Barcelona FC have included Drake’s OVO logo on the front of their jersey, as part of Barcelona’s partnership with Spotify, and in March 2023 Barcelona FC wore a match day kit featuring the logo of Spanish singer Rosalia during the Clasico against Real Madrid. We expect to see further such collaborations in due course as part of Barcelona’s agreement with Spotify, to offer 'innovative experiences for football fans”, while helping Barcelona FC’s brand reach wider audiences.
Premium sponsorship agreements typically involve a range of legal considerations that need to be carefully evaluated and negotiated. Such contracts will often be high value agreements, and the parties will need to consider a number of points including the scope of the sponsorship, duration, levels of exclusivity, payment terms, ownership and use of intellectual property rights (including use of trademarks, logos and copyrighted materials). Additionally, parties will need to be very clear as to what constitutes a breach of the agreement and what termination rights they have. This is particularly important in the context of long-term high value sponsorship deals and the contracts need to be carefully negotiated to limit the risks of the parties breaching the terms of their agreement. For example, it has been widely reported that at the beginning of 2023 Ferrari’s F1 team suffered a financial deficit in its sponsorship portfolio of $55 million due to the departure of two major sponsors Vela and Snapdragon. In a report by RacingNews365, it was suggested that Ferrari did not comply with clauses that permit Velas to create NFT images, while Velas was said to be in financial breach under the terms of the agreement. According to RacingNews365, this lost revenue constituted approximately a quarter of Ferrari’s annual sponsorship income.
Global Opportunities & State Wealth
Premier League clubs are seeing increasing interest from global investors, who understand the international commercial reach that a premium sports property can have. Recent examples in the UK include the Todd Boehly led acquisition of Chelsea FC, the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s (PIF) purchase of a majority stake in Newcastle United, and Sheikh Jassim’s current pursuit of Manchester United.
The PSG brand has a particularly “special resonance” in Qatar, given Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund’s ownership of the club. In 2022 PSG unveiled Qatar Airways as their new front-of-shirt sponsor in a multi-year agreement. The partnership also includes Qatar Airways Holidays offering official fan travel packages to Paris, with Doha’s Hamad International Airport and Qatar Duty Free becoming the official airport and official duty free respectively of PSG. This is reminiscent of Manchester City’s lucrative partnership with Etihad Airways (Manchester City are owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group). In a similar arrangement, Newcastle United’s sleeve partner is Noon, the Middle Eastern ecommerce platform that is part-owned by PIF.
State ownership of sporting properties can be a sensitive topic, raising some interesting considerations that need careful navigation, including in respect of third party due diligence and discovery standards. In October 2021, after a reported 16-month delay, the Premier League approved the PIF led takeover of Newcastle United after receiving “legally-binding assurances” that the Saudi Arabian state would not control the club. Now, in the context of a lawsuit centred around the Saudi Arabian backed LIV golf tournament, commentators have suggested that such assurances have been contradicted. PIF have challenged a disclosure order from a court in San Francisco, arguing that both PIF and its governor Al-Rumayyan "are not ordinary third parties subject to basic discovery relevance standards” and that “the order is an extraordinary infringement on the sovereignty of a foreign state”.
The financial power of football is undeniable, with clubs and owners constantly searching out new and innovative ways to generate revenue. From betting and crypto partnerships to premium and cross-over sponsorships, football clubs have been able to leverage their popularity to secure lucrative commercial deals.
With the legal and regulatory landscape evolving, it is becoming increasingly important for football clubs, sponsors and other commercial entities to carefully consider their opportunities. This may be of increased importance where internal commercial teams are incentivised by a commission based pay structure, and as such might be less cognisant of contractual risks, as they look to close deals. It may seem obvious, but a high value long-term sponsorship agreement may not provide long-term revenue if the parties are unable to meet their respective obligations under the terms of the agreement, or if certain contractual provisions (including termination rights, warranties and indemnities) have been poorly drafted and a party is able to terminate the relationship earlier than expected. It is imperative that organisations, including football clubs, fully understand the legal and regulatory implications of their commercial arrangements, to help mitigate against legal challenges or reputational damage.
For those who are willing to navigate the challenges and seize the opportunities in the new world of football commerce, there are undoubtedly significant opportunities to be found.