When considering advertising in football there are a handful of events that stand out. One is Hibernian signing the first shirt sponsorship deal for a top-tier club before the 77/78 season and the disquiet it caused. It was such a shock to the footballing world within the UK that a year later when Liverpool combined with Hitachi, a clause was written into the contract to exempt the club from using the sponsored shirts in live broadcast games.
Arsenal renaming what had hitherto been Ashburton Grove as the Emirates Stadium is another shock. The Gunners, at least, had bills to pay. The new name helped with that and such a big name taking this step emboldened others. Manchester City, on the other hand, inherited what was then the City of Manchester Stadium and promptly renamed it the Etihad. To be fair they did contribute £20 million towards its conversion from an athletics venue, continue to pay Manchester city council £2m a year to retain naming rights and don’t actually own the ground.
I grew up with front of shirt sponsorship so it is no surprise that I am comfortable with it. Is that perhaps the dividing line? While a shirt without a big logo on the front now looks a little strange for me I don’t like the sleeve advertising that has come in this season. Firstly I think it looks ugly but I also do worry it is the beginning of the portioning up of the kit in a way that we can already see in other leagues. Abroad it is not uncommon for a player’s name to be replaced on the jersey by a sponsor’s name and, if that’s not enough for you, in some places even the back of a pair of shorts can be used for advertising. Surely things have gone too far when sportspersons’ backsides are for sale?
Besuited managers do not escape the advertisers’ attention either. From the microphones thrust in front of them to the logo-splattered walls behind them (sometimes moving so as to maximise the viewable count) the sell continues. The first time I saw a portable Perspex panel set-up behind a manager on the pitch for a post-game interview, I was genuinely confused for a moment. You could still see the stadium and players milling around through the trademarks but it was strange and not in the slightly thrilling way I felt the first time I saw digital pitch-side boards. That was at the Bernabéu and it seemed like I was peering into the future. I was.
The standard boards do, of course, continue in use along with the Trompe-l'œil panels and paintings that we first saw in 90’s Italian stadia. These wonderful visual illusions are laid out on the grass, usually behind the goals, in such a way as to read either as 3D objects or standard writing to the cameras filming the match. Only up close is their distorted reality revealed. Very clever but their time may too be coming to an end.
American broadcasters have already experimented with using virtual imagery (CGI) superimposed on live broadcast feeds to create advertising on goal-netting. This sort of thing isn’t new. The same technique in a cruder form is used occasionally to project the score of a game onto the pitch. Feeling queasy yet? The potential for this kind of advertising is almost limitless in its flexibility; for instance allowing different messages to occupy the same space within the televised image, in each territory a match is being shown in.
One may reasonably ask where left there is to go after that? Well, since we’re already through the looking glass (or Black Mirror if you prefer) and since there is precious little space left on the players, imagine this: with virtual superimposition you could feasibly track and blot out the ball itself. How much would Coca-Cola pay to have a roundel of their logo kicked about in a World Cup final?