From Aeroflot to Thai batteries, it's a brand new global ball game
Manchester City have travelled a long way since the days when they paraded the name of Brother typewriters on their shirts, but this week took them into new realms of sponsorship when they announced the name of the club's official car battery partner in Thailand.
Step forward GS Battery, which joins Est Cola, recently signed up as City's official soft drink partner in the country. As the top Premier League clubs begin their July exodus into Asia, on tour, they take with them commercial staff who will be involved in a blizzard of activity to ring up the revenues from what are effectively licensing agreements – permission to use the club's name, which leading sports business commentator Richard Gillis compares to the way the Olympics and World Cup sell their names, and is just as tightly policed.
Manchester United have their own brand protection department and invite those who see United's crest being used by those who don't pay for the right to email them. Woe betide them.
"Use without permission is counterfeiting," United warn.
United have matched City's activity in Thailand this week, with manager David Moyes paying immediate respects at a Bangkok hospital on Thursday to the king of the country, who is unwell.
This is a land grab for the Asian market and United are masters at it. They added Gloops, Japan's leading social gaming group, to their sponsorship roster this summer, along with a Mexican bank and an Indonesian financial services outfit – just three more names for a colourful list of around 40 firms, including an official tyre partner in Indonesia, a soft drinks partner in China, a paint partner and a motorcycle partner in Thailand.
United were the first to identify that some of these deals could be global and some regional, like the Thai and Indonesian ones, says Gillis. United have been miles ahead of the rest with their commercial model, he says.
City have been fast catching up, though. One of the benefits of deals like Est Cola is the huge free TV advertising for the club it creates in the country – with City's logo on the drink adverts which seem to pop up on almost every commercial break. The sponsorship cash is the significant bit, though, part of the new income stream which helped City's commercial revenue almost double to £112m in 2011-12.
Aeroflot became United's "global carrier" this week in a deal which could bring in about £40m – the Russian airline wants to become more global, in the same way that Emirates and Etihad have all sought to escape the national image their names create.
All have launched into big sport sponsorship deals as a way of presenting themselves as international players.
United group managing director Richard Arnold said at the Aeroflot launch that the club had 18 million "followers" in Russia, returning us to the club's rather questionable measure of how popular they actually are across the world. Arnold claimed last year they had 659 million "followers" across the world – "from the person who holds up the flag to the person getting up at 4am to watch our Champions League games".
The 659 million figure, of course, is just the sponsorship sell and the battery, drinks and motorcycle firms aren't worried about interrogating it. It's the association with a global brand which matters to them, far more than the popularity of the club they've adopted. They're buying into the story of a global Premier League, which is played out 6,000 miles away but unravels in their living rooms via the league's international TV rights deals.
Millions of followers do not equate to loyalty, though, however much customer data the clubs are building up on these individuals. The potentially worrying bit for the clubs is how promiscuous the tyre, bike and gaming firms, along with the followers, might actually be.
"If a club disappears (from challenging for honours) for a few seasons, will the fans still be there and will the companies?" Gillis asks. "There's a flakiness about it. They're not fans with a sense of loyalty."
The rewards are enormous for United, City and a few others as they build a wall between themselves and the rest of the Premier League but, as Gillis says, the stakes are high. They have to remain at the top. Belonging in the Champions League is essential.
To which the clubs will say that they're not disappearing anywhere.
At City, where an international desk of all nationalities now translates the club's website into scores of languages, new manager Manuel Pellegrini exuded a panache and maturity at his first press conference this week.
"Only five," he said when asked about his chief executive Ferran Soriano's trophy aims. But you see what kind of pressure he is under.
The car battery users of Thailand are depending on him. (© Independent News Service)