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Volume 21 No. 1
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The ‘sport with a social conscience’ concept trips up Barca

Try this for a theory: The marketing power of FC Barcelona peaked during the heady days of late spring 2011, when the Catalan team beat Manchester United at Wembley to win the UEFA Champions League final. When the history books are written, that match will be seen as the apex of Brand Barca.

Today, things aren’t quite the same. It’s hard to spot when the dog days of a great empire begin; the signs of decline are almost imperceptible at first. But they are there if we choose to look.

There are plenty who will disagree. They will point to the news agenda of the last month to say that things are still going very well in Catalonia, thank you very much.

For the price of a ticket to the Barcelona vs. Paris Saint-Germain Champions League tie, you could buy a house in Greece.

The architects of tiki-taka remain. Xavi and Iniesta still weave their magic in midfield, and Messi is still Messi, the one true genius working in football today.

If this is what decline looks like, Barca’s supporters will say, we’ll take some more of it.

To gauge how things have changed, we have to go back to that week in 2011, when Barca came to London.

The Qatar Foundation replaced UNICEF on the FC Barcelona jersey, but it will soon cede the space to Qatar Airways.
The English football press welcomed the visitors with an open notebook, bending over backward to write adoring copy. The tone of the coverage was unmistakable: FC Barcelona is how football should be. The club is owned by its 163,000 member fans: It is the club that will never sell its soul.

By contrast, the story went, Manchester United were in the final despite their owners, not because of them. The reviled Glazers, the barbarians at the gate of English football, had saddled a historic institution with huge debt.

The Catalan team held a mirror to the best the Premier League could offer. And the result wasn’t pretty.

Nothing illustrated the cultural divide more than the logos on the teams’ shirts.

United’s famous red jersey bore three letters synonymous with the financial crisis: AIG, an American company very few fans had heard of until the company was spotted on the front pages of the newspapers.

They still didn’t know what it did, but they knew it was bad.

No such problems for Barca. Messi ran out at Wembley bearing the UNICEF logo on his schoolboy-like chest. So typical of Barcelona to think of the children, the papers cooed.

That week I spoke to UNICEF ambassador Lord David Puttnam, famous as the Oscar-winning producer of “Chariots of Fire,” but who cut his teeth in London’s advertising industry in the 1970s.

“Man United run around with a bankrupt insurance company on their shirt,” said Puttnam. “By comparison, the Barcelona shirt is the apotheosis of what is possible.”

It was not about awareness, he said. UNICEF has over 90 percent recognition in most countries in the world. “It is about dignity. At the end of the day there is a trade-off between dignity and cash and we have just lived through an era where cash trumped dignity. It is just possible that we are moving into an era where, just possibly, human dignity might trump cash.”

Heady stuff: sport with a social conscience, the ultimate win-win. Elsewhere the Barca-UNICEF deal was opening minds as to what football sponsorship could achieve.

Premier League team Aston Villa, under the ownership of Randy Lerner, went a season with children’s charity Acorns on their shirts. Even the banks saw the chance to present a human face. Swedbank used its naming-rights deal for Sweden’s national stadium to promote an anti-bullying nonprofit. The stadium remains the Friends Arena.

So, given the almost universal love toward Barcelona back then, what happened to bring them back to the pack in terms of brand sentiment?

Two reasons. Both instructive as to the future of sport sponsorship.

The first is an issue of communication: The press got tired of the holier-than-thou stuff coming out of Camp Nou. The club had UNICEF on the shirt, but it was still one of the most commercial-minded organizations in world soccer, with media rights to die for and 26 other official partners on the club’s roster, each paying top dollar.

More damaging was the deal with Qatar’s government.

When the Gulf state agreed to pay 125 million pounds for Barcelona’s shirt, it was sold to supporters and media alike as another social sponsorship, UNICEF Mark 2. This was days after Qatar won the right to stage the 2022 World Cup, thanks in part to a vote-trading deal with Spain’s 2018 bid.

Next year, as part of the same deal via Qatar Sports Investment, the charity logo will be replaced by that of Qatar Airways, the first commercial brand on the shirt for 112 years.

Tim Crow of Synergy Sponsorship in London called it straight: “The only surprise about the Barca-Qatar Airways deal is that it took this long for QSI to reveal their hand. It erodes the Barca brand, the Qatar Foundation PR is revealed as spin and it’s bad for the image of sponsorship.”

So, the money floods in to northern Spain, but at what long-term cost?

It seems economists are not the only ones who struggle with the difference between value and price.

Richard Gillis, a journalist and media consultant writes the Unofficial Partner blog. Follow him on Twitter @RichardGillis1.