And so, the Premier League is now over for another year. While this season was more a return to the status quo after Leicester City’s historic title triumph last year, the league continued to break new ground in a commercial sense throughout the 2016/17 season.
In a move which brought them into line with leagues such as the NBA and the NFL, the Premier League dispensed with title sponsorship at the beginning of this season, changing a structure which had been in place since the league’s foundation in 1992. Following a model similar to that of the GAA All Ireland Championships, the league took on multiple partners, with former title sponsor Barclays joined by brands such as EA Sports, Carling and Tag Heuer as main sponsors for the league.
With the worldwide popularity of the Premier League growing season by season, the move to further establish the brand’s identity in the mind of fans was a smart one.
This season also marked the first of the record three-year television rights deal signed between the league and broadcasters Sky and BT. Between the two, Sky and BT are paying over £5bn for the UK rights to the Premier League, with Sky paying the vast majority of the fee.
These rights are so valuable to broadcasters because of the reliable access Premier League games offer to a valuable and elusive target audience, as well as the intangible benefit of exclusivity for a highly sought after property.
The absence of the long-established Barclays title sponsorship was not the only major brand change which we saw this season. Sky Sports also started the season with new brand partners, with its association with headline sponsor Ford coming to an end after an incredible 24 years.
Rival car brand Nissan took over sponsorship of Sky’s flagship Super Sunday broadcasts, as well all Saturday matches and Premier League content on the Sky Sports website, while Bet365 took over broadcasts on Friday and Monday nights. While Ford’s long association with Super Sunday meant the adjustment was a difficult one for fans to make, Nissan’s brand mantra of “Innovation that Excites” proved a great fit for both the Premier League and Sky Sports as a broadcaster.
With Ford’s association with Super Sunday stretching back to 1992, and a second motor brand in Nissan following them in sponsoring perhaps Sky’s most iconic sports broadcast, there is clearly an attraction towards football for motor brands. Few properties offer as reliable access to one of the most difficult audiences for brands to reach; young men.
Sky has leaned ever heavier on the Premier League in recent years; its loss of the Champions League rights to BT has meant that its football coverage has become more Premier League-centric. The broadcaster has always been adept in its marketing of the league, but this season saw a renewed push, with a series of themes for matches and weekends. Events such as ‘Red Monday’ and ‘Heavyweight Week’ were promoted as appointment viewing, but were met with much derision across social media when the matches failed to live up to the hype.
While Sky’s reliance on the Premier League is only growing, the same cannot be said for viewership numbers. Much had been made earlier in the season of falling audience numbers for Sky’s Premier League coverage, something both the league and Sky stressed was not a cause for concern. However, Livewire research has shown that the decline in viewership has not been addressed. To the end of April 2017, viewership of live Premier League games across Sky Sports channels in Ireland was down 10% when compared to the same period in 2016. The decline in UK viewership is even more stark; down 15% for the period to the end of April 2017 when compared to the same period in 2016.
Falling viewership numbers of this magnitude must be a worry for Sky, with the broadcaster having committed to paying a record amount for the rights for the league and essentially putting all its football eggs in the Premier League basket for the next number of years.
This season marked the first year of an agreement between the league and Twitter which saw goals and key moments shown on the site in the UK and Ireland, via the Sky Sports Football account, which has over 3 million followers. Sky Sports also hosted the clips on its Score Centre app, which is free to download and currently has 5 million downloads in the Google Play Store alone.
These changing viewing habits raise a number of intriguing questions. The money on offer to rights holder such as the Premier League for their TV rights has never been higher, even though the number of people viewing the games on television is falling. Does this mean that we are approaching the bursting of the sports rights bubble? Or rather, is it the case that these rights will continue to become more expensive, but that the channels through which they are broadcast will change? Could we see Twitter or Youtube enter the fray for Premier League rights over the coming years, to rival traditional TV broadcasters such as Sky? It will be interesting to monitor developments in this space over the coming years.
The financial muscle of the Premier League was flexed at the beginning of the season as Manchester United broke the world record transfer fee to sign Paul Pogba from Juventus for a reported £89m.
The deal was notable not only for the record fee, but also for the manner of Pogba’s unveiling. Adidas, who supply Manchester United’s kit and for whom Pogba is a brand ambassador, exclusively announced the French midfielder’s arrival with a video featuring Pogba and Stormzy, which ran across social media.
The video was a refreshing change from the tired, cliched staged contract signings which usually accompany new arrivals, and opens the door for partners and sponsors to become more involved in big-ticket news items such as the announcement of new signings.
Commercial and sponsorship innovation in the Premier League was not just restricted to those playing the game; this season confirmed the rise of the sponsored manager.
Jurgen Klopp, in his first full season as Liverpool manager, was perhaps the best example of this. It is a mark of Klopp’s recognisability and commercial appeal that he has featured in a number of TV adverts aired in the UK and Ireland in the 18 months he has been Liverpool manager.
Aside from featuring in prominent ads for Opel, Klopp has also appeared in adverts for club sponsors Bet Victor and Nivea. Typically, brands leverage their sponsorship of clubs with appearances from players, so to see Klopp featured is testament to his popularity and extreme marketability.
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is another Premier League coach whose portfolio of sponsors would make his own players jealous. Indeed, such is the breadth of Mourinho’s commercial activity, that negotiations for his appointment as manager at Old Trafford was delayed by a number of days due to conflicts between the club’s sponsors and Mourinho’s.
What can we expect from the Premier League next season?
2017/2018 will be the first season in which teams will be permitted to wear a sponsor’s logo on their jersey sleeves. Manchester City became the first team to sign a sleeve sponsor when they announced that Korean company Nexen Tyres will occupy the space. For the larger teams in the league, deals for sleeves sponsors are believed to be valued at approximately one fifth of a main jersey sponsorship deal and so will be a significant boost to teams’ revenue levels. While the Premier League is undoubtedly a financial behemoth, this latest move only brings them up to speed with sports such as rugby union, where teams have long been permitted multiple sponsors on match kits.
The traditional jersey sponsorship will remain a vital part of Premier League commercial activity, as evidenced by Chelsea’s deal with Yokohama Tyres. Signed at the beginning of this season, and valued at £200m, the deal is the second most lucrative in league history and further underlines the attractiveness of the major Premier League clubs for brands.
In a somewhat uncertain climate, between falling TV viewership and the looming spectre of Brexit, the Premier League looks certain to continue to push the boundaries of commercial innovation next season and beyond. Be it the move away from title sponsorship, changing brand strategy or the introduction of sleeve sponsorship, the Premier League has proven its willingness to try new approaches to growing revenue in sponsorship.