They routinely adorn the biceps of Lionel Messi and Neymar and flutter on the jerseys of Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, yet until now they have been forbidden in the Premier League.
Sponsors’ logos on football clubs’ shirt sleeves are on their way to England’s top division from next season, however, as teams look to cash in further on their rampant global popularity.
It is a move that leading sides such as Manchester United believe could bank them an extra £10m a year on top of their shirt-front sponsorships and raises intriguing questions about the commercial future of the game.
For a competition renowned almost as much for its monetisation as for the quality of its football, it is perhaps surprising that it has taken until 2017 for the Premier League to accept sleeve sponsors.
Teams in Spain’s La Liga, Ligue 1 in France and the Chinese Super League already offer that space – Messi’s Barcelona have a four-year deal with appliance maker Beko – while Germany’s Bundesliga sells sleeve inventory centrally to a single buyer, currently logistics firm Hermes, and distributes the proceeds.
English clubs had long discussed following suit only to hold off in the belief that broadcasters would pay more for the rights to televise a “clean” product with limited shirt branding.
But the Premier League’s extraordinary continued success in marketing television rights at home and overseas – the latest deals are worth £8.3bn over three years – and its consequent decision to dispense with a title sponsor from this season, after talks with long-term partner Barclays and potential replacements failed to match their now-enhanced valuation, moved the goalposts.
Clubs, whose shirt sleeves previously featured Premier League and Barclays joint branding, made a renewed push to reclaim one arm, and succeeded, with the left arm set to continue to display the league’s new sponsor-free logo.
How much are sleeve deals worth?
No English top-flight team has announced a shirt sleeve sponsor yet but most have gone to market, with the biggest names looking to fetch eight-figure sums for a year’s 100cm sq placement on their players’ right arms.
“What it doesn’t deliver in media value equivalent it delivers in stature, which we think is attractive,” says Matt House, chief executive and founder of sports marketing agency SportQuake.
He estimates sleeve inventory to be worth 15-20 per cent of a Premier League club’s front-of-shirt sponsorship – the total market for England’s top division is worth around £225m annually – with United and Tottenham both thought to be seeking £10m and Liverpool £9m.
“It is typical football tactics: don’t ever pitch too low because someone might buy it,” adds House, whose London-based agency offers an end-to-end solution for planning and buying sports marketing inventory.
How does it work?
There are hurdles. The size of the sleeve space does not lend it to brands with lengthy names, while exclusivity deals will prevent clubs from selling to a company in the same sector as their lead shirt sponsor.
The same restriction applies to software firms, with EA the most prized of the Premier League new’s suite of category partners.
Clubs whose existing shirt deals promise exclusivity, rather than simply front-of-shirt exclusivity, may be forced to bargain with current sponsors if they wish to make space for a sleeve deal.
Other teams with close and lengthy associations with key partners may prefer to wait until those contracts are up for renewal before going to market.
Arsenal, whose front-of-shirt and stadium naming rights belong to airline Emirates, are believed to fall into this bracket.
Some smaller sides, as many as 10 according to some sources, are believed to be considering selling their sleeve rights collectively.
Back of shirt and carpet
Sleeve deals could be just the start of a new focus from Premier League sides on commercialising hitherto ignored inventory, according to House, as they prepare for a possible slowdown in the growth of broadcast rights value and an unpredictable new media landscape.
Back-of-shirt deals, which already exist in Spain, are one possibility, while he says that “carpet” – painted advertising on the turf that runs between the goal and the corner flag – would be worth far more than shirt sleeve sponsorship.
House, a former commercial director of Tottenham who also worked at Sky Sports, believes that “clubs have been happy benefactors of the great job the Premier League has done in commercialising TV rights” but that “that revenue stream particularly domestically is maturing”.
“I think there is still growth internationally [in the TV rights] but as people start to see a revenue stream maturing they will switch attention back to these ancillary revenues: shirt, stadium, training wear inventory,” he says.
"And in every business I’ve been in advertising follows eyeballs, so more may go back into the game through sports marketing. It’s a kind of benevolent circle.”