Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Heroes & Villains

We live, as I have said on here before, in testing times, and one of the most vexing issues of the modern game is the sense of over-commercialisation which accompanies almost every football match that we see. One of the watersheds in the commercialisation of the game was the introduction of shirt sponsorship in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The sight of shirts festooned with brand names is now so commonplace that more eyebrows are raised when a club takes to the pitch in shirts without something printed across the middle of them, although the issue remains divisive to this day. In Scotland, child replica shirts are not allowed by law to have the names of alcohol companies, and in France it all goes a step further, with no football clubs being allowed to carry the names of alcohol companies on the fronts of their shirts.

I reported on here last year about Barcelona's decision to give up the sacred ground on the front of their famous red and blue shirts to Unicef. In spite of considerable reading on the subject, the most that anyone could come up with was thew conjecture that Barca were just softening up their supporters for the idea of having a sponsors name on the shirts, even though there was nothing to back up that theory. This week, though, a club in the Premier League has opted to go down the same path, with the announcement that Aston Villa will be giving away the speace on the front of their shirts to the Acorns Childrens' Hospice in Birmingham, giving the charitable a considerable source of advertising and, one would hope, revenue for at least the next few months. Villa have been involved with them for some time, and the decision will cost them an estimated £2m in sponsorship money. It seems scarcely believable that, in an age of seemingly unbridled greed and naked monetarism, that a Premier League football club would make such a decision, but I've checked, checked and checked again, and there doesn't seem to be a down side to the deal.

All of this seems to be fairly typical of the ownership of Randy Lerner, whose time in charge at Aston Villa has, thus far, been one in the eye for the xenophobic arm of the people that are against foreign ownership of British football clubs. Lerner has run Villa in an exemplary manner, and it is starting to bear fruit already. He secured the position of Martin O'Neill (probably the second best British manager after Alex Ferguson) and has given him the freedom to manage the club. After a couple of the seasons of mid-table doldrums, Villa made significant progress last season and could be set for a serious challenge for a Champions League place next season. Quite asides from that, there is the moral aspect of the decision. Villa's kit manufacturers, Nike, may prefer to have their name next to that of a charity than next to that of a gambling company. The decision may bring positive publicity into Aston Villa and more people may buy replica shirts next season. However, this has to be weighed up against the needs of a charity which, as a hospice, receives no government funding and will benefit inestimably from the massive increase in its profile.

It's something that Doug Ellis wouldn't have done in a thousand lifetimes.


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