Arguably the most famous and most successful football brand has recently gave up what made them so special. ‘More than a club’ is what set FC Barcelona apart: it is what they stood for, how their club was ran, how fans connected with the club and each other, and it is how the brand was recognised the world over. It is a powerful idea, and at its most believable, has propelled FC Barca into the upper echelons of sporting power. It has enabled them to stand out, not just in Spain but also on the world stage.
Their recent decision to take a world record sponsorship fee in exchange for shirt exposure has seen them pass over the rights to the sacred jersey. This has meant one of the last remaining traditional assets of the modern game has finally passed over to the money men. Football is not quite the game it once was, and it has not been for some time; commercialization has long been hammering at its purity and former innocent core. What magnifies the importance of this announcement is that Barca were always perceived as, ‘more than a club’, they did things differently, with a purpose and for the purity of the shirt. They are seen as a symbol of Cataluna, with their army of fans entitled to part ownership in the club – as a result the shirt belonged to them . The recent decision to sign over the shirt to the not for profit Qatari Foundation is a final stake in the ever increasing chasm between football supporter and club.
Not much is left that is untouchable anymore in the game of football. The traditions built up over years are almost completely gone. Nothing is untouched by the commercial juggernaut. It seems all we have left are the cathedrals that the clubs call home, but as fans of new builds such as Arsenal will testify, it is not far from becoming an all-out sell off.
Shirts are an obvious source of revenue. For big clubs they are attractive properties, providing vehicles for sponsor partners to gain awareness on big European stages, as well as in domestic competition to create accelerated awareness and activation through the vast media and digital coverage it brings. Barcelona have long been lusted after by the corporate world for their reach and ability to cross national boundaries and transcend beyond their sport into pop culture.
For decades they had managed to maintain what the shirt stood for and kept it special for their fans. Their gesture a few years back to pay UNICEF for the right to wear their logo on the Barca shirts was genius. It proved the point that they where ‘more than a club’, seeing their role far beyond the action on the field, they understood the impact they could play in the world. Their decision to take £25m per season off the Qataris proves that they are just like any another club; the money is useful and it will enable them to continue to compete against their commercially driven rivals. The bigger issue is whether it was worth dismissing the Barca brand for all it’s worth, by striking this deal, ‘more than a club’ is no longer believable. The rich history that took over 100 years to build into this defining thought and propelled Barca above its peers has been seemingly broken down overnight. Unfortunately, that seems to be the shortsighted nature of football management these days.