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COMMENT

07/25/2014
Two of the English Premier League’s most high profile managers. Louis van Gaal and Arsene Wenger, have this week stated that the commercial demands of pre-season tours are damaging to their clubs’ preparations for the new season. The managers have stated that flying long haul disrupts the training and fitness preparations and the effects of jetlag exacerbate the problem. So what are the implications for clubs and sponsors? And why are such pre-season tours in danger of failing to meet their objectives anyway?

First, it is worth noting that high profile managers are usually the first to demand bigger transfer kitties to make teams more competitive.

Indeed in the same week that Louis van Gaal complained about the ‘commercial’ demands, the club’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, told the world that van Gaal was free to smash the world transfer record. It’s hardly the best negotiating tactic when dealing with a selling club, but it does underline that despite its dreadful season, no place in the Champions League and huge debt, commercial income generates sufficient funds to bankroll a major foray into the transfer market.

Man Utd sponsorship reaches $300 million per year

Manchester United’s new deal with Chevrolet, worth up to $80m per year, starts this season and an even bigger deal with Adidas has just been signed. The club is now looking at sponsorship income in the region of $300 million per year. To put that into perspective, it is higher than the entire turnover of clubs such as Inter Milan, Atletico Madrid or Tottenham Hotspur.

That commercial revenue needs to be earned and major sponsors such as Chevrolet, which most industry analysts believed has significantly overpaid for rights, need to see a programme to raise their sponsorship profile and assist their activation. The tour of the USA is particularly poignant for Chevrolet as the brand has withdrawn from Europe since the deal was agreed in 2012.

That said, sponsors still need to balance their requirements with those of the club. There is no point in insisting on a major long-haul tour if the effects are likely to hamper a fresh challenge for trophies and a return to the Champions League. Genuine competitive success is much more valuable to a club than a pre-season tour.

Major soccer tours - trouble ahead?

But perhaps clubs need to re-evaluate the rationale and benefits for such tours anyway. Traditionally Europe’s giants have flown to far-flung corners of the World, charged premium prices for showpiece matches and disappeared having showered a few platitudes on the locals.

Consider the comment from Ryan Giggs on Man Utd’s current tour of the USA:
“There are lots of benefits… Facilities are good. All the lads love going to the States because you can chill out in the day, do a bit of shopping and relax when you have a bit of down time. You don’t get pestered like you might in other places.”

No mention of the fans, nor of helping to develop the game in the USA. Indeed look at all the matches played by Europe’s giants in the USA in recent years and it is noticeable that they take place in NFL stadia, designed to maximise ticket revenue. There’s no support for the MLS clubs who have developed new, albeit smaller stadia and helped to grow ‘soccer’ in a country where the huge incumbents of gridiron, baseball, basketball and ice hockey dominated the sports media landscape.

US soccer fans - increasingly savvy

It is also a mistake to take US audiences for granted. They are now aware that friendly matches tend to comprise a handful of first team players making half-hearted efforts. These matches are not serious attempts at competitive football and generally don’t justify the premium ticket prices. As such, many of the showcase games are failing to sell out, while crowds at MLS games are on the up. USA fans don’t mind paying top prices, but only if they are getting top quality in return and the nation is rapidly becoming ‘soccer savvy’.

It’s time that European clubs took a less patronising attitude to audiences around the world. Soccer is developing in the USA and Asia and there is no guarantee that there will be easy pickings in the future. The days of demanding millions of dollars for an exhibition match and then moving on to the next willing city could be coming to a close. The World Cup showed the quality of teams and players from countries that don’t represent soccer’s superpower states. Indeed Louis van Gaal might take time to consider that England, which still supplies a significant contribution to his squad, are five places below USA in FIFA’s rankings.

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