Ched Evans and Oldham Athletic: What it means for the club's sponsors including Sports Direct

John Reynolds, a former Campaign, Marketing and Media Week journalist who now freelances for titles including The Guardian, casts his eye over the big stories in sports marketing.

Comparing the furore surrounding Oldham Athletic’s interest in signing convicted rapist Ched Evans with that of the brouhaha caused by the club signing jailbird Lee Hughes seven years ago is futile.

Ched Evans

In 2007, Hughes, who signed for Oldham after serving time for killing a father of four in a road crash before fleeing the scene, was a repentant man who faced up to the media and did everything possible to ingratiate himself back into society.

Hughes was also around at a time when sponsors were certainly not interested in rocking the boat should a scandal arise.

Andy Kenny, managing director of sponsorship agency brandrapport, said the sponsorship landscape back then was very different.

He said: “Every sponsor always backed the club or rights holder, whether it be in the Olympics or Manchester United and said ‘we will support them, it’s their business.’”

Fast forward to today and Evans, unlike Hughes, appears unrepentant after serving time and seems to have done little to ingratiate himself back into society.

Evans is also around at a time when sponsors are interested in rocking the boat.

“What you are seeing now is more sponsors take a stand and say ‘no’ we don’t believe this is right. Brands are more aware and conscious of their values and what they stand for and don’t want to tarnish their brand,” adds Kenny.

The fact of the matter is that no big sporting scandal today is complete without a sponsor offering its two pennies' worth – and if they don’t offer up an opinion they are lambasted for failing to put their heads above the parapet.

Radisson Hotels suspending sponsorship of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson over a child sex abuse scandal; Zoopla pulling out of football club West Brom over the Nicolas Anelka racism storm; FIFA sponsors expressing anger at alleged corruption within the football governing body... the list goes on.

In this latest storm surrounding Oldham Athletic – currently 14th in League One with an average attendance home attendance of 4400, one of the lowest in the league – and its apparent bid to sign Evans, a schism has appeared.

Verlin Rainwater Solutions, which sponsors a stadium stand, and low-level sponsor Mecca Bingo Club, which takes out branding in the club programme, say they will pull out if Evans is signed.

However Web Applications UK said it would continue to support the club irrespective of its decision over Evans, as did CM Solicitors, another sponsor.

Oldham Athletic has over 50 commercial partners of varying size and stature, according to its website.

However, the reality is that many of these are paltry, one-year deals which will have negligible impact on the club’s bottom line should they pull out.

The big sponsorship beasts are Sports Direct, which sponsors the shirts and stadium as part of a £200,000 a year deal five-year deal signed in 2014, and Oldham Council, which is also heavily involved in financing the club.

If either of these were to threaten to pull their sponsorship, then the club would have to say bye to Evans.

As Kevin Richardson, sports editor of the Oldham Chronicle, said: “Like most clubs in the lower league, £1m over five years is a huge investment and it is also money which is drip-fed over five years so you know that money is coming through. Whereas a lot of these other sponsorship deals are for one season. They have also got a new shop (Sports Direct) underneath the new stand which will bring in new revenue.”

While there is now a big call for Sports Direct boss Mike Ashley to scrap his retailer's sponsorship, at least he knows he is unlikely to be financially compromised should he decide to pull the plug on the deal.

Any sponsorship deal today worth its salt includes a clause which gives either party (football club or sponsor in this case) the right of pulling out of a deal at no financial cost should either party bring the other into ‘disrepute’.

In the Evans case, sponsors can legitimately argue the ‘disrepute’ case and will be able to axe their sponsorship without incurring penalties.

Speak to those close the situation and the thinking is that the longer Oldham Athletic continue to hold their silence over Evans, the more likely is that a deal will be done.

And should Evans win his appeal against his conviction, then the club could have a very valuable asset on its hands, whose goal scoring credentials have never been questioned.

John Reynolds is a freelance business, media and sports journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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