As the 2020-21 football season enters its business end, the sense of anti-climax uniquely associated with ‘lockdown football’ is perhaps at its starkest point.
And while the experience of watching high-jeopardy games played out in front of soulless stadiums should be building the anticipation for a ‘normal’ season with the full return of fans, many match-going (Premier League) fans find themselves questioning whether the return to stadiums will be yet another anti-climax.
This sense of apprehension is not related to any latent ‘Covid safety’ fears or potential admission policies, but the bastardisation of the match-going experience created by the application of VAR within elite-level football.
An obvious consequence of the restrictions placed that have been placed on individual freedoms is that people, from all walks of life, have a greater understanding of the actions and experiences that truly matter to them.
For match-attending fans, the visceral emotion of attending live football is right near the top of this list. There is a greater appreciation of the unique environment of the football stadium, one in which you can express a range of sentiments : joy, anger, pain etc in a way that is not possible in ‘normal life’.
Most are realising that it isn’t necessarily the product that they are missing but the power of the collective experience and the release that provides.
Putting the arguments about the validity of the technology to one side, the application of VAR has created an unnatural check on instinctive fan emotion at the critical moment of the ball hitting the back of the net. And for most fans this (hypothetical) nirvana of perfect decisions is not enough to overcome what has been lost. A low-scoring game with few critical moments cannot be compared to sports such as rugby, cricket or tennis where the viewing experience (and fan emotion) is influenced by a fast-moving scoreboard.
It is within this context that an increasing number of elite football properties are developing a bespoke sponsorship proposition around VAR. Fifa and Serie A have both announced their intentions and others will more than likely follow suit. I have even seen one industry expert refer to VAR as the ‘biggest sponsorship opportunity that football has ever seen’. And while these VAR sponsorship rights may well sell, any brand hoping to win the hearts and minds of football audiences by associating with the technology that is negatively impacting the experience of fans should probably do the equivalent of going to Stockley Park for a referral.
I see the argument as to why, in theory, VAR provides a unique sponsorship asset. It gives the rare mix of consistent and ownable broadcast integration tied to a brand storytelling platform.
Of these two core components of the VAR mix, the broadcast integration is valuable. It would provide something more akin to how the elite US sports are able to monetise their content and the kind of integration lacking within European football broadcasts, as well as less clutter and more visual consistency than LED and other in-venue assets.
However, it is on the brand storytelling element that the whole opportunity falls flat. It is true that it is increasingly difficult for sponsors to find a differentiated positioning within football – the advent of branded content was also the advent of generic activation: we have all seen far too many skill challenge and player Q&A videos.
And while VAR could be associated with tech and innovation, the past 18 months has seen a flood of technology brands entering sponsorship (F1 and football in particular) using their expertise to truly enhance the sport and add to the fan experience in a positive way.
VAR doesn’t provide the same benefit – does a sponsor genuinely want to be on the ‘wrong side’ of a philosophical debate on the spirit of football and marginal calls? As that is what VAR has become and always be.
Furthermore, any sponsor of VAR would be highly unlikely to be actually providing the technology and/or influencing the policy-making around its application, another massive limitation on the storytelling element of the sponsorship and key difference from those recent examples of tech brands entering sponsorship in an additive way.
Given these considerations, beyond the obvious media exposure benefit, there is little merit in VAR sponsorship. Brands truly looking to engage with fans on a deeper level need look elsewhere.
Dan Haddad is the head of commercial strategy at Octagon.