Football Shirt Sponsors – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

What makes a good football shirt?

We asked Phil Delves to find out…

You know, the kind of shirt which stands the test of time, winning over legions of adoring fans the world over.

Is it largely down to the combination of colours? Is a clever design key to its legacy? Both these factors are indeed important, but perhaps even more critical to the success or failure of a kit is the sponsor which adorns the front of it.

For better or for worse, a sponsor will amplify the memory you have of a particular shirt, especially if that sponsor has a relationship with a club over several years. Think of Manchester United and, depending on your age, you’ll likely recall images of Sharp or Vodafone on the front of the famous red shirt. It’s a similar story with Arsenal and JVC or O2, whilst fans of all ages will associate Carlsberg with Liverpool.

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Source: dailystar.co.uk

Great sponsors aren’t just seen in the big leagues, however. Travel down the divisions and you can find some stunning shirts which are elevated solely by a sponsor, with the kind of design treatment which puts higher-profile teams to shame. Equally, there are plenty of questionable combinations to be found wherever you look, reminding us that no matter how far we’ve come there is always room for a humbling.

I’m going to take a look at some general best practice when it comes to shirt sponsorship. How important is the colour of a sponsor? Do you need to treat a company logo differently if the shirt features stripes?

Let’s take a look at these questions, and more.

Colour matching

Let’s start with a personal favourite subject of mine: colour.

When it comes to sponsors on shirts, the first thing you’ll usually notice is how the colour of that sponsor fits with the rest of the design. In many cases, a company will simply plaster on their standard full-colour logo with minimal, if any, tweaks. Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable method for many logos, sometimes this simple cut and paste method produces a garish clash which takes away from the overall aesthetic of a shirt.

To illustrate this problem, let’s head over to MLS franchise Philadelphia Union.

In the 2018 season, The U were kitted out in a very smart adidas design which boasted a subtle hoop pattern on a dark navy base. Gold details were also found across the kit, with a flash of lighter blue from the crest completing the look. Quite simply it was one of the better kits in the league, that is until you saw the shirt sponsor.

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Source: prosoccerusa.com

Enter the amusingly named Bimbo, who just so happen to be the world’s largest baking company. Inevitably their red, white and blue logo has made its way onto many shirts over the years, and Philadelphia were the unfortunate benefactors this time around.

That all changed a couple of months ago. On the eve of the 2019 season, Philadelphia launched a tweaked version of their 2018 home kit which carried through everything that was good about the previous year, but with a sponsor to match.

Mls: Rowdies Suncoast Invitational Philadelphia Union At Montreal Impact

Source: prosoccerusa.com

Gone was the ugly, full-colour Bimbo logo and in its place was a smarter, monochrome version. This all-white design instantly elevated what was already a great shirt, rather than hampering proceedings like the year before.

It’s this kind of adaptation that Manchester United fans have been crying out for ever since Chevrolet started sponsoring The Red Devils, and to this day there hasn’t been one shirt of theirs where the logo has looked at home. adidas don’t have to look very far at all to see the benefits a few colour tweaks can make, and if they do make a change the chances we end up with a classic shirt will be much, much higher.

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Source: talksport.com

Pattern incorporation

Another key consideration for any sponsor is how their logo will fit around the pattern of a shirt. There are many creative ways this can be achieved, though sometimes even the biggest clubs can suffer from a rushed approach.

We’ll stay in Europe this time, to look at Ronaldo’s current stomping ground Juventus.

I’m sure you already know where I’m going with this. After a variety of different primary sponsors in the 00s, The Old Lady settled down with Jeep in the 2012 season. From a brand awareness perspective, the fit was a very good one for all involved. From a shirt design perspective however, we’ve been on something of an emotional rollercoaster.

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Source: express.co.uk

This year’s home shirt is a classic example. It’s one thing to place the Jeep logo in a black box, but to put it in a black box that doesn’t even match the black of the stripes on the kit is a bizarre decision at best. It looks very much like a hasty, last-minute decision made out of necessity rather than a considered choice.

Even more strange is the fact that the club themselves treated the same sponsor is a considerably better way just one season before. The 2017/18 home shirt features the same Jeep logo not in a black box, but with a subtle stroke or outline. This helps the sponsor sit nicely amongst the stripes, and although the colour of the outline still didn’t quite match the stripes, the overall look is still much more considered.

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Source: si.com

Other possible ways to incorporate a sponsor include tweaks to the pattern, perhaps by cutting away portions of the design or introducing some sort of gradient. Like the colour discussion, it’s often the most subtle of changes that can make the biggest difference, and although there’s something a bit retro about the ‘black box’ approach, it’s best avoided if you’re looking to create a truly great shirt design.

Sizing and placement

Next up with have sizing and placement.

In order to illustrate just how badly this aspect of a sponsor can be handled, we’ll take a look at Cambridge United. Considering their relatively humble position in League 2, United have a decent set of shirts. However, it’s difficult not to look at their home kit and wonder why on earth their sponsor is so high on the shirt.

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Source: cambridge-united.co.uk

The MickGeorge.co.uk logo has a perfectly good area to sit, in a gap created by the breaking up of the pattern, but instead it looks almost as if it’s being pulled by a magnet to a section of the shirt where it shouldn’t be. It’s the kind of placement which can make a kit look lopsided, and even the most casual of observers will be quick to notice that things could be improved by nudging the sponsor down.

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Source: ouest-france.fr

Sizing is perhaps a slightly less contentious issue compared to placement, as the largest of sponsors can have something of a charm to them. Look at any of Stade Rennais’ shirts this year for example. Their sponsor Samsic is almost comically big on their shirts, but despite this the overall aesthetic is actually pretty strong, if only works because the rest of the shirt is well designed.

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Source: gentside.com

Go back to some of Rennes’ earlier shirts though and you can see the bad side to this approach. Whenever a logo is almost touching the edge of the chest portion of the shirt, it’s worth considering a reduction in size. The problem is only exasperated when there are multiple sponsors in play, a common occurrence in French football. Where there are several logos competing for precious shirt real estate, proper spacing and colour choices (as discussed before) are critical to the success, or failure of a design.

Memorable design

Ok, so you’ve got a sponsor that’s exactly the right colour, in exactly the right place, with a good size and a design which fits well with the pattern of the shirt. We’re looking at the perfect sponsor, right?

In reality, even if you follow all the best practice detailed above, you might still end up with a shirt sponsor that simply lacks an x-factor. If a shirt is going to be remembered for years to come, the sponsor needs to have that extra something that will help separate a design from the thousands of other shirts out there.

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Source: twitter.com / classicfootballshirts.co.uk

My favourite illustration of this often hard to pinpoint factor comes from Fulham in the early 00s. Across two seasons from 2001-2003, The Cottagers used the same home shirt which featured a design typical of the era. Notably though, they switched their sponsor in 2002 giving us a ‘fair test’ for the difference a sponsor can make to an otherwise identical kit design.

For the 2001/02 season, their sponsor was none other than Pizza Hut. I am a huge fan of food and drink sponsors on shirts, largely because of the novelty there is seeing a brand logo you’re so familiar with outside of football, making it’s way ‘onto the pitch’. The logo itself looked great on Fulham’s shirt, with the red of the logo matching the red of the crest, and the sizing and placement causing no issues whatsoever.

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Source: fulhamfc.com

It all made for a memorable shirt. To demonstrate how forgettable the kit would’ve been without Pizza Hut’s branding though, we only have to look to the 2002/03 season when Fulham switched over to betfair.com. Although the Betfair logo was  inoffensive and simple, it looked comparatively safe at best and unattractive at worst. I would hazard a guess and say that of the two shirts, the design from 2001 would rank considerably higher if you asked Fulham fans to choose their favourite shirts of the past 20 years. Even fans of English football in general would most likely have some sort of recollection of the time Fulham were sponsored by Pizza Hut. Could they say the same about Betfair?

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The world of football shirt sponsors is a strange one. Sometimes it appears there are absolutely no rules when it comes to what works, and what doesn’t. Scratch beneath the surface though and you’ll see that, with a little extra care and attention given to the sponsor, average shirts can become cult classics, and good shirts can become legendary ones.

Written by Phil Delves 15th March 2019

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