Selling out

FC Barcelona last to do away with anti-advertising tradition

Posted: Monday, May 23, 2005

 

  Barcelona's Ronaldinho, from Brazil, celebrates his goal against SKM Puchov in a UEFA cup match played at Camp Nou stadium Barcelona, Spain in this Oct. 15, 2003 photo. Barcelona, the last major soccer club in Europe without advertising on its shirts, is about to sell out. And it's not just any deal. To keep up with the purchasing power of rivals such as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and AC Milan, the 105-year-old Catalan club is looking toward China. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Barcelona's Ronaldinho, from Brazil, celebrates his goal against SKM Puchov in a UEFA cup match played at Camp Nou stadium Barcelona, Spain in this Oct. 15, 2003 photo. Barcelona, the last major soccer club in Europe without advertising on its shirts, is about to sell out. And it's not just any deal. To keep up with the purchasing power of rivals such as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Chelsea and AC Milan, the 105-year-old Catalan club is looking toward China.

AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

BARCELONA, Spain — FC Barcelona, the last major European soccer team without advertising on its shirts, is about to sell out. And the message sewn into its uniforms will be uncommon.

Under a proposed five-year contract worth a reported $190 million, Barcelona's red-and-blue striped jerseys are expected to carry ''Beijing'' or ''Beijing 2008'' across the front next season. There will be no Olympic rings, but the Chinese capital — host of the 2008 Games — figures the message will get through.

Such a move would be shocking in the United States. Fans cannot imagine a company logo across Yankee pinstripes, or an ad adorning the Lakers' purple and gold uniforms.

Yet it's common in Europe, where clubs rely on such advertising revenue — they cannot match their American counterparts in stadium or television receipts. Barcelona, with its 106-year tradition, had been the lone holdout.

The deal, which would boost the club's yearly revenue by about 15 percent, is expected to go before the board of directors for approval Tuesday.

''It had to happen,'' said Stefan Szymanski, a sports economist at Tanaka Business School in London. ''Barcelona has certainly not maximized its sources of revenue, which is true for European soccer clubs in general. They have not done as well as American teams.''

Barcelona fans realize they must match the spending power of European rivals Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea, but the move into the commercial world still comes as a jolt to a club steeped in a unique tradition. During the 36-year dictatorship of Spain's Francisco Franco, the club grew as a symbol of Catalan cultural and political nationalism, and as a bitter rival of Franco's team — Real Madrid.

A few days ago, about 1 million fans turned out for a victory parade after Barcelona won its 17th Spanish league title. The club's motto says it all: ''Som mes que un club.'' (''We're more than a club.'')

''I think fans understand that things have to change,'' said Victor Monzonis, who owns the bar-restaurant El Divino in Caldes de Montbui, a town about 20 miles from Barcelona. When Barcelona plays, his tables are reserved for fans — known as ''cules'' — craning to watch the TV.

''We can't continue with the shirt as it is. We know money is an issue. I don't care if it's China or someone around here, a deal is a deal.''

Across the bar, another fan differed.

''It hurts a little after so many years with no advertising,'' Marc Silva said. ''It's like the club has sold part of itself. The club has always survived on its own, but now it needs help.''

The team has declined comment since president Joan Laporta returned two weeks ago from Beijing, with former International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch — a Barcelona native — reported to have helped with the deal.

The Chinese are saying little. The Beijing 2008 Olympic Committee says on its Web site it has ''never had any form of contact with (the) Barcelona Club of Spain.'' Spanish newspapers say a contract is being negotiated with the Chinese ministry of education, culture and tourism.

Under the deal, the club would get about $38 million a year to wear the shirt advertisement. The arrangement also includes advertising on Barca's Web site, exhibition games in China and other commercial rights. There's also a reported $8.8 million bonus for winning the European Champions League.

Shirt ads are common in Europe. Real Madrid has Siemens, Manchester United has Vodafone and English champion Chelsea is beginning a new deal with South Korean electronics company Samsung. In Barcelona, rival team Espanyol carries advertising on its shirts — and on the back of players' shorts, too.

Such advertisements are common in other nations, as well. In fact, when the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays played two regular-season games in Japan last year, they broke with U.S. tradition by putting white 3-inch patches on their shirt sleeves with the words ''Ricoh'' in red. The New York Mets and Chicago Cubs also had small ads on their uniforms when they played in Japan in 2000.

''It is an awakening to Europeans who think that Americans are driven by money and commercialism to realize that club uniforms in the United States are still sacred. And they aren't over here,'' said Szymanski, the English economist.

Barcelona may have succumbed to a climate of spending blamed in large part on billionaire Roman Abramovich.

The 25th-richest man in the world — according to Forbes, he's worth $10.6 billion — the Russian oil tycoon has poured hundreds of millions of his own money into London club Chelsea since buying it two years ago.

For the 2003-2004 season, Manchester United ranked No. 1 in revenue among European clubs — $311 million, followed by Real Madrid at $283 million and AC Milan at $267 million. Barcelona was No. 7 at $203 million on a list published by the British accounting firm Deloitte Touche.

By comparison, the Yankees estimate their 2004 revenue at $350 million, with final figures not due to be compiled for several more months.

''Barcelona has tried to maintain its traditions and protect the history of the shirt,'' said Bill J. Gerrard, professor of sports management at Leeds University Business School. ''But ultimately you have to look at it: What do the fans want? Yes, they want tradition, but they also want the financial power.''

European soccer stadium revenues lag behind those in North America, and the TV deals are not as rich. For instance, the NFL's TV deal is worth about $3 billion annually. TV contracts in Europe's big five soccer countries — Spain, Italy, England, France and Germany — are about two-thirds that much, Szymanski said.

Ardi Kolah of Imperial College London, who has written a study on sponsorship, is skeptical about the deal.

''If we accept they are trying to promote Beijing as a destination for the Olympic Games, and they are not able to use the Olympic rings, it weakens the deal,'' Kolah said.

To others, selling to Beijing is a halfway measure.

''It's almost like a lesser evil, instead of selling a product,'' said Dan Mason, a professor of sports management at the University of Alberta in Canada. Mason studies how cities use sports to promote themselves.

''Barcelona arrived as a city in the 1990s because it was able to leverage its own Olympic Games,'' Mason said. ''And now Beijing, which is already a world city, is trying to do a similar thing.''

Club officials have been careful to pick an advertiser that won't anger fans of other clubs across Spain. In Barcelona, sales of Siemens are reported to be weaker with Barca fans because of the Real Madrid association.

''No Madrid resident will stop going to Beijing because Barcelona has the city's name on its shirt,'' said Xavier Oliver, professor at the IESE Business School in Barcelona.

''This is an interesting way of getting around being completely commercial and making as few people unhappy as possible. Of all the offers it might have had, this may be the best way of ending an old tradition.''



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