A visit to an Italian supermarket can be a deeply reminiscent experience for the calcio devotee. The aisles are lined with familiar names and logos that transport you back in time to the players, teams and kits of seasons past.
The sight of Buitoni pasta sends you into a daydream about Maradona’s Napoli. On the same shelf you’ve spotted the Barilla; synonymous with Roma in the 1980s. Down the next aisle, you’ve picked up a packet of Segafredo – didn’t they sponsor Bologna? Yep – and Treviso. You’d assumed that Parmalat had imploded as part of Calisto Tanzi’s empire. But there it is, pride of place in the refrigerated section.
Shirt sponsors are given a prominent position, front and centre on the chest of the jersey. They are given primacy over the sacred club badge and allowed to consume a great swathe of the club colours. The aesthetic of a football shirt can either be made or broken by the sponsor on the front.
If done well, a sponsor can complement and enhance an iconic shirt design. And if the partnership is particularly long-running, or if the association happens to coincide with an upturn in fortunes on the pitch, a shirt sponsor can become an ingrained part of a football club’s identity.
In this commercial age, it is easy to forget that shirt sponsorship is a relatively recent phenomenon, dating back less than forty years. The Italian football federation initially resisted the introduction of sponsors, despite widespread liberalisation across Europe and in other domestic sports. However, once the shackles were removed, Italian clubs soon capitalised on the newfound commercial opportunity.
A brief history of Italian conservatism
The first instance of a corporate logo appearing on an Italian football shirt was not, in fact, a case of sponsorship at all. In 1953, a joint venture was established between Vicenza Calcio and the local textile manufacturer Lanificio Lanerossi di Schio. The relationship was much deeper than that of a mere sponsor. The two entities formally merged with one another, in simultaneously pursuit of both commercial and sporting ambitions. The club changed their name to Lanerossi Vicenza and began to carry the manufacturer’s iconic “R” symbol on their jerseys.
This paved the way for several other clubs to enter into their own commercial arrangements. A number of oil and chemicals companies stepped into the fray, providing financial backing to provincial sides to create Sarom Ravenna (1954), Ozo Mantova and Zenit Modena (both 1957). The latter example was a particularly ambitious partnership, with Zenit making 100 million lire available in support of the club’s (ultimately unfulfilled) ambition to reach Serie A. There were other, less glamourous partnerships too, such as Monza’s deal with Simmenthal, a tinned meat manufacturer.
Perhaps most notably, Torino, languishing in Serie B a decade on from the Superga disaster entered into an agreement with the confectioner Talmone in 1958. The club became known as Talmone Torino and the company’s logo (a white “T”) was placed on the breast of the Granata shirt. This caused consternation amongst the Toro faithful who regarded this as a denigration of their hallowed club colours. Certainly, few tears were shed when the arrangement was abandoned, and the club reverted to their original name after just a single season.
The direction of travel had led to considerable unease at the Federation, not least due to the incessant changes to team names precipitated by these transitory agreements. The FIGC were moved to ban these partnerships altogether by the end of the decade, though an exemption was made for the more established Lanerossi Vicenza.
By the 1970s the rising tide of commercial involvement in world football was becoming irresistible. The FIGC formally recognised the image rights of players in 1974. By 1978 they had established an entity called Promocalcio to manage the image and television rights for Serie A. In the same year, they also took the symbolic step of allowing clubs to display small manufacturer’s logos on their kits.
Yet Italian clubs still craved the extensive liberalisation that was taking place in Germany and England. Teofilo Sanson, the president of Serie B Udinese and patron of an ice cream company of the same name had a clever wheeze. The regulations proscribed advertising on the shirt, but were silent on other elements of the kit. The Friuliani kicked off the 1978/79 season with the Sanson name emblazoned vertically on the team’s shorts. Predictably, the Federation took a dim view of this deliberate circumvention of the rules and swiftly put a halt to it.
The following season, Perugia became more creative still, entering into what might be considered the first modern shirt sponsorship arrangement in Italian football. In order to finance the signing of Paolo Rossi, I Grifoni (The Griffins) entered into an agreement with pasta maker Ponte. In exchange for 400 million lire, Perugia shirts would bear the name of the fictitious manufacturer Ponte Sportswear. Perugia were dealt with firmly by the Federation for this stunt, receiving a succession of fines and disqualifications.
Although the bogus manufacturer’s logo was reluctantly removed from the playing shirt, Perugia persisted with the Ponte logo on club tracksuits, stadium advertising, even etching their sponsor’s name into the perimeter of the playing surface at their Renato Curi stadium. Several other clubs followed suit by entering into commercial agreements that appeared to stay on the right side of the regulations. Cagliari (Alisarda), Torino (Cora), Genoa (Seiko) and Inter (Inno-Hit) variously made arrangements to display commercial logos on warm-up gear and on the clothing of substitutes and ball boys.
The FIGC held its line until the 1981-82 season, whereupon it yielded to the escalating pressure from its member clubs. The latent demand for such liberalisation was clear, with all 16 Serie A teams and the majority of Serie B clubs taking up the opportunity to display a sponsor on their shirt.
A series of memorable partnerships began; the Platini-era Juventus shirt became synonymous with the Ariston sponsor, whilst Roma’s inaugural agreement with Barilla would endure for 13 years. Other pairings did not live so long in the memory, such as Milan’s agreement with Pooh Jeans and Ascoli’s with fashion brand Pop 84.
Fiorentina took an unconventional approach with the clothing brand J.D. Farrow’s, who become both club sponsor and technical supplier to the team. The chest of the shirt was given over to an enlarged Fiorentina emblem, whilst the sponsor’s name was more subtly incorporated above.
Meanwhile, Udinese opted for low key Vicenza-inspired symbol. They displayed the “Z” of their owners Zanussi on the breast of their shirt, before incorporating it directly into the club badge the following season.
A Sign of the Times
From a corporate perspective, sponsorship of a football team remains a questionable strategic choice. The tribal nature of football surely means that it will alienate as many potential customers as it will endear. It’s difficult to believe that any self-respecting Milanista would choose to put Pirelli tyres on his or her car. Indeed, academic research suggests that this particular form of marketing does not translate well to the bottom line. Yet, there remain a procession of willing partners, seeking to enjoy the prestige of sponsoring a major football team.
The identity of Serie A shirt sponsors over time can be used as a barometer for social and economic change in Italy and Italian football. In that first season, back in 1981/82, over half of the sponsors came from just two sectors; clothing and homeware. The wide appeal of calcio in Italy provided a good cross-over with the target market of those products. The value of sponsorship agreements were quite modest too and were affordable to some relatively niche domestic brands.
By the late 1990s, Italian football had reached its on-field zenith. The dominant sector for sponsorship had become food and drink, a key export sector of the Italian economy. The 1990s also witnessed the emergence of IT and telecoms sponsors as the dotcom economy began to take shape. The sponsors had a more international flavour too, reflecting the growing appeal of Italian football abroad, with global brands such as Pirelli, Nintendo and Opel taking a place at the table.
Fast forward to the present day and a further evolution has taken place. A much more diverse set of sponsors can be seen, ranging from charities and renewable energy, all the way through to financial services and airlines. Automotive has been an ever-present over the decades, but amidst this newfound diversity has now become the largest single source of sponsorship in Serie A.
The difference in sponsorship values between the top and the bottom of Serie A has increased sharply over time, contributing to a wider trend of inequality in Italian football. In 1984/85, Lecce’s sponsorship deal with the Alaska ice cream company was worth around 27% of Juventus’ deal with Ariston. By 2018/19, the lowest value primary sponsorship deal (Empoli) was worth less than 4% of Juventus’ arrangement. That inequality has been accentuated since the turn of the millennium by the baffling failure of a number of established clubs to attract a sponsor at all.
Old habits die hard
Italy’s initially conservative approach to sponsorship has persisted over time. In 2018, having fallen behind France’s Ligue 1 in terms of sponsorship revenues, Serie A became the last of the top five European Leagues to allow shirt sleeve sponsorship, However, even then, what was being given with one hand was simultaneously being taken by the other.
That same summer, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy were busy introducing legislation to prohibit gambling sponsorship within Italian sport. Protestation from clubs delayed the introduction of the ban at the beginning of 2019, but Italian clubs are now set to be prevented from cashing in on the gambling boom.
This most recent act of conservatism arguably places Italian football at the moral vanguard of the European game. Other nations have so far shown little appetite to grip the ethical questions thrown up by an epidemic of gambling in football. However, inhabiting the moral high ground will offer cold comfort for Italian clubs placed at a financial disadvantage to their foreign rivals.
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article you may also be interested in my mini series about the Black Pioneers of Italian football.
The title image is provided courtesy of the talented @hallydesigns and can be bought in poster, t-shirt and mug format from here.