F.C. Barcelona and Nike (NKE), which provides the club's uniforms, seem certain to trigger a firestorm when they unveil the new 2011/12 season team shirt, expected today, after accepting $225 million from the Qatar Foundation to move the Unicef logo to the back of the shirt. Now the Unicef name will grace the butt of every Barca player, and that symbolism tells you all you need to know about the dominance of sponsor money in football.
Previously Barcelona donated $1.9 million a year to the children's charity and played without sponsors. Barcelona will still donate the money, but next season Unicef will take a literal back seat to the Qatar Foundation, which has funded Hamas, supported a Muslim cleric who has called for the death of all Jews, and is run by Qatar's royal family.
It's all anathema to Barcelona, a club that is owned by its fans and has a leftist tradition dating back to the Spanish Civil War. Barcelona has literally and metaphorically sold out because the club has the same economic problems everyone else does -- crushing debt caused by spiraling player acquisition costs. The club's marketing director, Laurent Colette, recently told the French media that Barca may have had to do the unthinkable -- sell Lionel Messi, the best football player in the world -- if it had not taken the Qatari money:
"It's exciting work but we must respect the institution while being pragmatic," Colette told Le Parisien newspaper ahead of Barcelona's Copa del Rey defeat to bitter rivals Real Madrid.
"For example, the arrival of Qatar Foundation on the jersey was necessary but did not please the romantics. But if we did not have this sponsorship, we would have had to sell.""We have become vulgar"
Resentment is already simmering among the faithful. Johan Cruyff, a Barcelona legend who played for the club between 1973 and 1978, has repeatedly condemned the Qatar sponsorship, most recently in the Spanish press:
We have sold this uniqueness for about six per cent of our budget. I understand that we are currently losing more than we are earning. However, by selling the shirt it shows me that we are not being creative, and that we have become vulgar.Commercial revenues, from shirt sales and such, are becoming a bigger part of football economics, but shirt sales are not guaranteed. At Manchester United, shirt sales slipped 10 percent when fans launched a boycott protest over the club's indebted American ownership.
When photos of the new Barcelona shirt leaked, fan bulletin boards filled up with complaints.
No wonder the Qatar Foundation is currently searching for a new PR agency to handle its Â£3 million account. May I suggest that contenders offer the client their experience in crisis communications?