Why Barcelona settled for Qatar Airways as shirt sponsor and will always struggle to match Manchester United's commercial clout

Antony Marcou
Qatar Airways has sponsored Barcelona since 2013 (Source: Getty)

Despite being one of the largest football clubs on the planet, Barcelona were compelled to ignore calls from within their own fan base to cut ties with Gulf state Qatar, which included a petition signed by over 60,000 people, and sign a one-year extension to their Qatar Airways shirt sponsorship deal earlier this month after struggling to find a new partner.

You'd think a club like Barcelona could be more picky. But money speaks. The membership may not be entirely comfortable sporting Qatar on their shirts, but then they also appreciate being able to afford the mega salaries belonging to Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. You can’t have guns and butter.

Barcelona may be Spanish champions but when president Josep Bartomeu claims there are a multitude of huge brands all lining up to work with them and that they can sell shirt sponsorship for the same £47m-per-year Manchester United receive from Chevrolet, I’m not so sure it stacks up.

When you’re a big British club like United, the sheer scale of broadcast distribution in the Premier League provides the eyeballs and classic return on investment (ROI) work required from a shirt sponsorship.

Read more: Background - Why some Barclona fans are unhappy with the Qatar Airways association

A big brand asking ‘do I sponsor Barcelona and divert that from my traditional media spend in individual markets around the world?’ will conclude that Barcelona’s value caps out at a certain level when the team are more often than not playing their games at 21.00 or 22.00 at night. And that basically turns off Asia. As football crazy as they are, it’s just not going to compete with Premier League games going out at 1.30pm, 3.00pm GMT. That’s what does the numbers.

Barcelona might have had a million brands lining up to have the conversation, but when those brands have got their team to crunch the numbers internally, it just doesn’t work.

Unless you’re massively targeting the Middle East where the time zone kind of fits for Spanish football then it can work. But you can’t amortise it across the globe.

Happy family? Barcelona and Qatar renewed their sponsorship deal late in the day (Source: Getty)

With Qatar, it’s different. The Qatar Foundation isn’t interested in media ROI but in something else entirely — nation building.

Until the broadcast footprint in Spain is matching that of the Premier League, matching Barcelona’s asking price is only going to come from a brand looking for a vanity purchase. And for that, Qatar can afford to pay Barcelona a premium price.

But there’s a risk for Barcelona, evidenced in some of their fans’ uneasiness surrounding the deal.

It’s almost the opposite of their association with Nike. If Nike are kit supplier to any sport franchise, that bestows on them a prestige status because it’s well known within the industry that that Nike overpay for the big clubs. If you get picked to be a Nike club, that tends to allow you to have a premium on your other sponsorships because brands will want to be associated with Nike as well.

That could now work in reverse as we get closer and closer to the Qatar World Cup and more horror stories continue to emerge surrounding immigrant workers dying while building stadiums, the strong heat and the allegations of corruption in the bidding process.

The commercial revenue may have been secured for another year. But the long-term brand association might not do Barcelona any favours at all.

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