Premier League teams turn style into a cash cow

Posted on October 19, 2010


First featured in the Guardian

Everton will release a third “vanilla” strip this month. The rationale behind Premier League teams offering a third strip is to avoid a potential colour clash with opponents. In Everton’s case, however, any clash is highly unlikely: their away shirt is a shocking barbie pink.

Everton are not alone. Their announcement is only the latest in the recent trend for England’s top-flight clubs to produce three new strips a season. The ever-changing design of football shirts is leaving devoted fans out of pocket: for the first time since the inception of the Premier League in 1993, all 20 top-flight clubs released new home kits for the 2010/11 season, while England’s new Euro 2012 qualifying shirt was their 47th new design in 44 years.

The Football Task Force, a government initiative established in 1997 and chaired by former MP David Mellor, recommended that Premier League clubs restrict the introduction of a new home jersey to once every two seasons. This proposal was later enshrined in the Premier League charter in 2000. But there is nothing that legally prevents teams from introducing new kits every season, and the consensus on a two-year break is now being flouted by all the sides in the top division.

A staple item for most supporters, the average price of an adult-sized, half-sleeved Premier League replica shirt this season was £40.89. This excludes personalised name-printing or the Premier League badge, which is likely to set fans back a further £8-£15. The new England shirt has a RRP of £44.99.

The Premier League’s worst offender is Tottenham Hotspur, which has changed its home jersey design in each of the last six years, while Chelsea has done so four times in the last five seasons. Only Arsenal and Liverpool kept the same strip for two years before introducing a redesigned home shirt in 2010/11.

The mounting cost of keeping up to date with your team is compounded by the recent trend for limited edition jerseys and commemorative shirts, such as Arsenal’s redcurrant strip that marked their last season at Highbury in 2006.

Keeping up with the Premier League rat-race is becoming almost impossible for fans in financially testing times. Steve Powell, director of policy at the Football Supporters Federation, claims the recent trend shows that clubs regard their supporters as little more than “turnstyle fodder”.

“The clubs are ignoring the clear voluntary agreement they entered into with fans and the government around 10 years ago, and it’s just not on,” he says.

The Premier League states that clubs should “allow for market research to be undertaken with regard to the frequency of strip changes and to its design”. However, it seems to me that kit changes are necessitated less by market research and more by commercial realities, including the need to find new sponsors.

Manchester United, Liverpool, Fulham, Aston Villa and Sunderland are among the top-flight names carrying new sponsors this season. Liverpool ended one of football’s longest associations with the Carlsberg beer company to sign a lucrative £80m four-year contract with international bank Standard Chartered. This equalled the highest ever sponsorship agreement struck by Manchester United and global risk management company Aon. Meanwhile, Tottenham Hotspur took the unprecedented decision to have two different sponsors on their league and cup shirts.

Such is the international reach of Europe’s biggest clubs – stretching from the far east to North America – that the football shirt has developed into a branding vehicle like no other. Whereas clubs argue that big-money sponsorship provides them with the revenue to sign players or freeze ticket prices, they seem ignorant to the fact that changing their sponsors exerts additional financial pressure on their faithful fans.

“Fans are not stakeholders in their clubs and are too often viewed as cash cows to be milked for every last penny,” Powell says.

He also warns that the financial demands placed on supporters will provoke a reaction: “If they continue in their current vein, the Premier League teams risk alienating supporters further. At some point you expect there will be a backlash.”

The growing popularity of alternative vintage strips and the availability of sites selling high quality fakes and “seconds” on the internet suggest some fans have already started to look elsewhere.