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Liverpool FC’s misplaced pass shows how football business needs to tread carefully


By James Kirkham, James Kirkham, Head of COPA90

January 12, 2018 | 4 min read

This week saw renewed calls from campaigners for Liverpool FC to end its controversial sponsorship deal with Chinese company Tibet Water, sparking an online petition and angering hundreds of thousands.

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Tibet Water is corporately toxic, campaigners claim, because it benefits from China’s military occupation in Tibet - often cited as brutal and oppressive - to bottle and sell Tibetan resources.

Of course, the alignment to China is not surprising; clubs like Liverpool have been courting the Asian market as Chinese football explodes. Now with shows in the UK on Sky Sports Football, and with a series of high profile player moves last summer and beyond, the Chinese Super League is big business.

The controversy around Liverpool and Tibet Water feels like a wormhole to a wider issue. The rise and rise of football holds no bounds, and the game has never been bigger. With the shifting sands of consumption, rumours of Amazon’s entry into the rights game, and the emergence of players like Facebook, this growth is set to increase.

Clubs are more connected globally than ever before, and players are signed with clear commercial interests in mind. For instance, it is well known that Japanese footballer Shinji Kagawa signing for Manchester United several seasons ago was one of the most commercially exciting moments for the club in years as it helped open up an entirely new market. From US interest in the game to tours of Asia, this will not change and, in fact, will only increase further.

The growth of gaming culture has also precipitated and fuelled this international trend. Through games such as FIFA, fans now have a deep knowledge of players around the world, and can access global leagues such as the MLS or the Bundesliga far more easily than was possible 20 years ago.

But there’s a warning here for football clubs. They must be aware of how this rush for revenue could backfire if sponsorship and other deals are not predicated on sufficient understanding of local political or territorial issues. Clubs are much more than a marketing machine or money -making exercise. They’re an essential backbone and pillar of community, and a spiritual starting point for many – the comparison between the weekly communal chanting at football matches with singing in church is one that’s commonly made.

All the more reason, then, for those in charge to swell their ranks with smart marketeers who understand the world around them. We mustn’t get to a point where centuries-old football clubs, which mean so much to so many, can chase a quick buck at any cost. Ignorance will no longer be an excuse where news travels fast, and the Twitter pitchfork brigade can seemingly make sweeping changes in a matter of days if something doesn’t feel right.

Football is at a fascinating juncture, with astonishing amounts of money slushing around the world’s number one form of sporting entertainment. But this is more than a TV show, it’s more like religion, a cathartic experience about legacy, about ritual, about tribalism. Clubs need to tread warily in their haste to make money, as one misstep could cause untold backlash in today’s socially proficient market.

James Kirkham is head of Copa 90

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