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Women’s Super League title sponsorship reinforces Barclays’ status as ‘financial partner of football’

  • Barclays relinquished title sponsorship of Premier League three years ago and has used the opportunity to diversify its portfolio within the game
  • Women’s Super League partnership offers chance to “change perceptions around the women’s game”
  • Football connections used to strengthen bank’s brand in America

When British bank Barclays stepped down as the title sponsor of the Premier League in 2016, it was the end of an era. Not only did it see the Premier League move towards a new ‘clean brand’ model, eschewing a naming rights partner for the first time since 1993, it also brought to a close an association that had begun 15 years earlier, when the bank took over the title sponsorship from beer brand Carling. For English football fans born from the mid-‘90s onwards, the Barclays Premier League, and previously the Barclaycard Premiership, were the only names they had ever known for the division.

Outwardly, the decision may have appeared as Barclays taking a step back from football sponsorship, having made such a large outlay – its final naming-rights deal with the Premier League was valued by SportBusiness Sponsorship at £40m (€49m/$67m) per year between 2011 and 2016 – over its decade-and-a-half of involvement.

Barclays had achieved what it set out to achieve with the partnership: a case study from the Cake agency showed that brand trust in the bank in the UK rose by 28 per cent, against a target of 10 per cent, between 2007 and 2016 thanks to its Premier League partnership – a remarkable result given the general perception of financial institutions in the years after the 2008 crash.

Tom Corbett, the Barclays’ group head of sponsorships and media, says that far from Barclays pulling away from football, the move was taken to allow it to double down on its interests in a sport with which it had “become synonymous”. Barclays wanted to spread its investments in an attempt to promote the Barclays brand to different audiences, forge a broader connection with the sport, and to drive the bank’s corporate social responsibility efforts.

“We did a big piece of work last year to look at where the opportunities were moving forward and whether we should continue that relationship with football,” Corbett tells SportBusiness. “There’s no question that globally, it is the most engaging category out there. Nothing else competes with it. We’ve been involved with the sport for 17 years and counting, so there’s a strong association, particularly from a financial services perspective; we do see some of our competitors stay away from it. We feel like we have an opportunity to own that space.”

Barclays will become the first-ever title sponsor of the FA Women’s Super League from the start of this season, just a year after the division became fully professional

He points out that, rather than allowing its relationship with the Premier League to expire with the title deal, Barclays remained as the league’s official financial services partner – at a significantly lower outlay than the title sponsorship, about £9m ($12m) annually, but with many of the same benefits to the bank. “We bank the Premier League and we bank the majority of Premier League clubs,” says Corbett. “We remain at the heart of keeping the commercial wheels of football turning. That’s not the sole reason we would renew the relationship, but it’s a really important one, where we can really add value both to our business and to the clubs and football itself.”

Moving away from being the title partner, he says, “has allowed us to define a bespoke banking partner agreement, focusing on key markets for Barclays while retaining access to many of the rewards and opportunities that we can pass on to customers”.

Earlier this year, the bank became the first title sponsor of the FA Women’s Super League, which had only turned fully professional the previous autumn, under a three-year deal – something Corbett says simply would not have been possible while the bank was still fulfilling that same role at the Premier League. Barclays is paying £4.5m per year for that partnership, the largest ever commercial investment into women’s sport in the UK, which also sees it become the lead partner of the Football Association’s Girls’ Football Schools Partnerships – a player development scheme that will roll out in 100 locations across the UK over the course of the arrangement.

While the title partnership is the headline component of the deal, the latter element is what points the way towards Barclays’ wider sponsorship strategy, with a focus on the wider community and social benefits of football.

Changing football for the better

“We’re focused on driving awareness and driving consideration,” Corbett says. “And football is really critical for that because it reaches such a mass of people. But another important measure and framework for our strategy is around society. It’s around how we build societal and cultural value into our sponsorship activities; it’s about benefiting the communities that we live and work in.”

Barclays, Corbett says, has established three core priorities for its initial investment into women’s football over the next three years: “Firstly, we want to change perceptions around the women’s game, because they aren’t where they need to be at the moment, at any level. Secondly, we want to champion the professional game. We want to shine a light on the WSL for what it is and for the talent that plays on the pitch every day. And, thirdly, we want to increase accessibility for all girls, at all levels, to play football.”

The accessibility aspect, which will be pushed through the FA’s Girls’ Football Schools Partnerships, is “truly the reason that we’re in this,” says Corbett. “The opportunity, and the ambition we’ve set, is to make football available for every girl, in every school, by 2024. That, for us, is what success looks like at the end of the first three years of our partnership.”

Success will also be judged on the growth of the Super League in that time. Barclays’ sponsorship will contribute to a £500,000 prize for the division’s champions at the end of this season, the first time an official prize pot has been made available. “We want to change perceptions around the game and get to a position where money is flowing through the game, where salaries are higher for female players. We want the FA to be having valuable conversations with the broadcasters, rather than someone thinking they should do it just because it’s the right thing to do.”

Commercial goals not a priority

By spreading its interests, from the top end of the professional game with the Women’s Super League partnership to developing grassroots programmes for young girls who have never engaged with the sport before, Barclays is hoping to deepen its connection with football and strengthen the synonymity of its brand with the game. While Corbett declines to outline specific brand targets for its women’s football partnership, similar to the trust goals it set for the Premier League deal, he does note that assessment of its success “would never be about how much money we made.”

Although Barclays’ Premier League deal and some of its agreements with clubs “clearly have commercial streams within them,” Corbett says, there are no such goals set at all within the women’s football partnership. “That isn’t to say that commercial benefits won’t come eventually, but they’ll come from the role we’re playing to shine a light on the game, the role we’re playing to support grassroots and champion football for girls in communities. That all has a public perception on Barclays as an organisation, which in turn makes people hopefully want to do business with us. There is a natural commercial return, but there’s no hard and fast commercial goals that sit beyond why we’re doing this. We’re doing it to create opportunities within the game.”

Barclays’ WSL campaign is focused on growing opportunities for women and girls to play football at all levels

Barclays has strong reasons for maintaining its strategy. As well as the evidence of its reputation and trust among consumers rising as a result of its Premier League partnership, Corbett says that research carried out on behalf of the firm has shown that consumers are up to 10 per cent more likely to consider banking with Barclays if they are aware of its football sponsorships. “We understand the health of our brand and we do that through a third-party agency where we look at awareness and association and consideration,” he says. “We engage with a panel of people on a regular basis and we look at those aware of our sponsorship and those unaware of our sponsorship. And then we look at the difference between the two based on whether they would consider us, whether they trust us, whether they think we have integrity, and that also goes back to our purpose and our values. And absolutely we’ve seen uplift there.”

The 10 per cent figure is based solely on the Premier League partnership, but Corbett believes that the Women’s Super League has the potential to raise the bar even further. “I’m the first to say that while the Premier League is a hugely valuable property, it goes nowhere near as far as the women’s sponsorship will in terms of having that deep impact on society. So it will be fascinating to see how those results shift over time, because women’s football is much more tangible – you can feel it much more in local communities and around local initiatives that we’re going to be directly involved in.”

International outlook

Barclays is also using its football connections to build its presence in the US, a territory where it has relatively strong brand recognition – particularly through its sponsorship of NBA team the Brooklyn Nets’ Barclays Arena – but a lesser foothold in the commercial banking space.

Starting with the 2019-20 season, Barclays has signed on to become the presenting partner of NBC’s weekend Premier League coverage, taking over from the previous partner, British carmaker Land Rover. The exposure Barclays will receive from appearing in that presenting partner role is comparable to the benefits of being the league’s title sponsor, he says, but at a fraction of the cost, because “it allows us to own that space around the Premier League in the US, and it allows us to tailor it to that specific market. There’s not the wastage we’d see from a global buy on that level.”

While the fee for the partnership has not been disclosed, it will clearly be a fraction of what Barclays was paying to be the Premier League’s naming rights sponsor, and the deal allows it to cut through the “very crowded” sponsorship market in the US at a time when soccer’s visibility and presence is growing. Weekend Premier League broadcasts on NBC frequently reach an audience of 500,000, while the coverage of the final day of the 2018-19 season was watched by a record audience of 2.2 million.

These are consumers Barclays is hoping to engage this season, consumers the bank knows to be dedicated football fans it can target directly on a weekly basis. “There’s an opportunity to bring that kind of love and passion of soccer into that local market, through those Premier League clubs and Premier League football,” Corbett says. “Then we can activate and leverage around that, which is exciting.”

Additionally, a sponsorship signed with City Football Group, owners of Premier League champion Manchester City, was created with a focus on the American market, with Barclays’ logo featuring on City’s playing shirts during its pre-season tours in the US in 2018 and 2019. As well as helping the brand engage fans in the country, hosting a series of football-themed events for customers in the cities that the team visited, that partnership has also been used to strengthen Barclays’ wholesale efforts in the States, offering its investment banking clients the opportunity to speak with Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and chief executive Ferran Soriano. “If you’re a football fan and you’re in the world of investment banking, the ability to sit in a room and hear them talk about the business of football and global business that they’ve built around City Football Group and their global presence is incredibly appealing,” says Corbett.

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