Manchester United has shown European Super League football clubs should be wary of a brand backlash

Manchester United’s training kit sponsor has pulled the plug on a £200m deal due to a supporter backlash in the wake of the failed European Super League proposal. Can club owners continue to ignore key stakeholders as brands and fans recover from a global downturn?

Manchester United fans protest against the club's owners at Old Trafford, causing a game to be postponed (Photos: Getty Images)
Manchester United fans protest against the club's owners at Old Trafford, causing a game to be postponed (Photos: Getty Images)

A lot has been written about the failures of European Super League football clubs’ shocking stakeholder management and communications, but one aspect that remained largely unexplored is how the public fiasco would play out for club sponsors.

Over the weekend, we finally got a taste of the fallout when a multimillion-dollar deal was apparently scuppered by fears of a fan backlash.

The club involved – Manchester United – has received the most vociferous backlash from its fans, who stormed Old Trafford on 2 May, causing the Premier League to postpone one of its biggest fixtures, Manchester United vs Liverpool.

On Saturday, The Observer newspaper reported that Manchester United has missed out on a new training kit deal worth £200m over 10 years after Manchester-based company The Hut Group had concerns about the supporters’ campaign to boycott the club’s commercial partners in protest against the Glazers’ ownership.

Branding of Myprotein, a Cheshire-based sports nutrition and clothing company owned by THG, was due to appear on United’s training kit this summer, replacing the AON brand.

Fans are targeting the comanies they believe are destroying football, such as Super League backed JP Morgan (Photo: Getty Images)

The Observer reports the sponsor U-turn is due to fears of a backlash from the #NotAPennyMore campaign, which urges United fans to boycott the club’s commercial partners – including Cadbury, DHL, new playing kit sponsor TeamViewer, Adidas, and Kohler.

Last season, commercial partner revenue at Manchester United was worth £509m, down from £627m in the previous year due to the impacts of COVID-19 – but still an extremely important part of the overall revenue pie for the Premier League club.

This provides an insight into the potential power of well-targeted fan activism.

At the time the European Super League was in play, I spoke to experts in sports communications and sponsorship to find out how the fan backlash might play out for brands.

The overriding sentiment was that there are generally two types of brands involved in football sponsorship: those chasing exposure and eyeballs, and those that are more brand-led and looking to align their IP with a purpose, often involving fans and community.

“There is a category sponsor who may be slightly concerned by what's going on, but clubs hadn't done anything to be in breach of their contract with those sponsors,” a sports marketing executive told me at the time. “They will take the view that it will perhaps resolve itself (as it panned out) and they will continue to benefit from the exposure the clubs are providing.

“Then there is a different pool of sponsors and brands involved in some of the football clubs, who are perhaps not just doing it… because of the big audiences they can reach, but also to run purpose-driven related activities.”

One of the brands mentioned in the latter group was Liverpool’s shirt sponsor, Standard Chartered, which in 2018 secured a four-year extension in a deal worth £160m.

In celebrating a decade of sponsoring the club, the global banking and financial services company released emotional creative that showcased how much the club, and its most recent Champions League victory, meant to fans and the Liverpool community.

“If you look at the work that they've done around using the global community of Liverpool fans to enhance the values of the brand, and the club is plotting a course totally in opposition to the beliefs of that community, there’s no doubt the situation becomes very challenging,” one sports marketing executive said.

Another view from the comms director of a company heavily invested in English football, who agreed that the optics of a major fan backlash would have made some sponsors sweat.

“If you are a sponsor of one of these major clubs involved, you’ll be asking questions," he said. "For example, if fans started burning shirts with your logo all over it, it’s really not a good look. Some of these sponsors of clubs like Chelsea [and] Manchester United are involved in multimillion-dollar deals; they are going to want to make sure they are getting their money's worth.”

As it has panned out, one of those brands that had been sweating on United’s fan backlash was THG. But could its response be just the start?

The bigger fallout, a sports sponsorship broker told me, could be the effect on a club's ability to secure new commercial partners in the future “with so much negativity and uncertainty in the air”.

He added: “If we were advising a brand to enter into a club partnership with one of the clubs involved, we would advise them to pause and take stock of the situation.”

It is reported that scenes like this at Old Trafford has led to one Manchester United sponsor backing out (Photo: Getty Images)

Although a lot of focus has been on how the European Super League scandal angered fans, players and club officials – and rightly so – it is when the backlash starts eroding the value and appeal of sponsorship revenue that club owners may really start to take notice.

As the world exits a costly pandemic, with purpose increasingly top of mind for many brands and corporate leaders sensitive to not appear at loggerheads with consumers, the pool of potential commercial partners may well have shrunk for clubs that ignore and antagonise the communities they serve.

Player and fan activism is here to stay, but there could be an important role for commercial partners to influence positive change in sport.

Read next: Communications own goals were central to European Super League's failure to launch

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