British Premier League club Newcastle United may be facing a difficult situation with four of its star players. The club recently signed a sponsorship deal with the pay-day loan company Wonga. Under this deal, the Wonga logo will appear front and center on the Newcastle kits (jerseys). The problem is that Newcastle players Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Hatem Ben Arfa, and Cheick Tiote are all practicing Muslims, and Sharia law prohibits benefitting from lending or receiving money, which means that interest is not allowed. There are reports that Ba, Cisse, Ben Arfa, and Tiote might refuse to wear the newly adorned shirts, which obviously puts the club in an awkward position.

On the one hand, Newcastle must honor its contract with Wonga.  On the other, it would be unwise to upset a group of four players that have contributed 12 of Newcastle’s 13 goals so far this season. That being said, kit sponsorships are often some of the most lucrative deals for European football clubs. Unlike in most American sports leagues where jerseys contain only team logos and colors, European football clubs typically sell the “advertising space” on their jerseys to the highest bidder. Newcastle is now in a position where it has made a deal with a controversial company and could face repercussions on the soccer pitch from unhappy players.

This would not be the first time that a footballer has voiced complaint about a kit sponsorship. In Spain, former Seville striker Frederic Kanoute requested not to wear that club’s 888.com emblazoned shirt. In that case, the club allowed him to wear a jersey that was blank where the advertisement normally goes.

Should Newcastle consider doing that for these four players? How will Wonga react to the best players on the Newcastle team refusing to wear the logo? Is this type of advertising even appropriate in sports? Should players have a say in what advertising logos appear on their chests?

Tracy R. Hancock

 

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10 Responses to Newcastle United and Its Advertising Conundrum

  1. Amelia says:

    I think that allowing individuals on a team to opt out of an advertising contract that their team entered into would be a misguided response to this problem. Fans and players alike should be aware that selling jersey space is just a form of revenue generation like any other form of advertising, and it does not constitute any player’s or team’s endorsement of that company. However, the solution is not clear. Perhaps these players should be given the option to switch to a team with a more agreeable sponsor—but this would surely cause an even greater public outcry. Perhaps sponsors should be hand-picked based on the approval of team members and fans—but this would require a level of opinion polling and due diligence that would not typically be expected of a sports team. Regardless of the ultimate path forward, the industry should realize that sponsorship—especially on something as personal as the players’ jerseys—is interpreted by many as an implied endorsement of that company, and this space should perhaps be guarded more closely.

  2. Deepak says:

    Everyone comes out ahead. Unfortunately for Wonga, not all publicity is good publicity: all this incident appears to have done is drawn more attention to their predatory loan practices.

  3. Jeremy Gove says:

    This is preposterous. There are tons of kit sponsorships that involve businesses that benefit from lending money, even basic businesses like car companies have financing arms. Money pervades all parts of soccer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this has more to do with Newcastle being perilously close to relegation than anything else. If these guys were suiting up for Manchester United, the team atop the table whose kit is also adorned with a company that makes money from lending money (Aon), I doubt they would be complaining.

  4. Jacob Marshall says:

    The political aspect is the heart of the issue for Newcastle. Normally, if a handful of players, for religious reasons, won’t wear the sponsor’s logo, you let them wear a blank kit and the sponsor gets the benefit of all the publicity surrounding the players not wearing the jersey. Everyone comes out ahead. Unfortunately for Wonga, not all publicity is good publicity: all this incident appears to have done is drawn more attention to their predatory loan practices. I would never advocate for taking away an athlete’s political speech, but Newcastle should honor its sponsorship contract, allow the players to cover the sponsor they don’t believe in, nominally fine the players for doing so, and be more selective about sponsors in the future. If they don’t at least attempt to honor the sponsorship contract, it’ll significantly devalue what is a very lucrative spot on their kit (Wonga paid 24 M pounds for four years of the spot).

  5. John Craven says:

    Going off of Shannon’s point, I think it will be possible to have the four Newcastle players take the same route as Kanoute did for Seville, and wear an advertisement-free jersey. Even though it does seem a bit arbitrary to be opposed to having Wonga on the team jersey because of its lending practices when the entire league is bank sponsored – there is still some distinction. Playing in a league that is bank sponsored is seemingly less direct of a connection than if a player had it right on his jersey. Furthermore, the player will know that his play for his Wonga-sponsored team affects Wonga more directly than Barclay’s.

  6. Shannon Han says:

    The rejection of the Wonga sponsorship seems politically motivated as well as religiously. As Kim noted, Wonga has a horrible reputation for predatory lending practices, often sparking government investigations into its methods. Newcastle is also has one of the highest rates of debt to income in the country.

    Wonga and Newcastle are already combating the negative PR by reverting the name of the stadium to Saint James Park, without any mention of Wonga. I would be surprised if Wonga didn’t give in and allow the plays to follow the example of Freddie Kanoute, who was allowed to wear an unbranded jersey while playing for Seville due to similar objections to the club’s sponsor. Even if all four are on the pitch in unbranded jerseys, that’s still 7 of 11 that are displaying the logo. Additionally, the club could likely still sell branded jerseys with those 4 players names and numbers to the public.

  7. Ray Rufat says:

    I’m by no means an expert on Sharia law, but I don’t see how this could be considered a legitimate violation on the part of the players. They are not profiting directly from the sponsorship deal, they are simply accepting a fixed salary from their ownership. Are they upset that the team is endorsing the company on their jerseys? It should not matter where the team owners get their money from. I’m sure a large amount of team owners have profited from some kind of lending practice. Under this logic players should not even be able to play in the Premier League to begin with because it is sponsored by Barclay’s which profits off of loans as well, and every match is essentially an endorsement of loan practices. The BBVA Spanish League would face the same issue (I’m sure these sponsorship deals with the leagues result in a payout to the individual teams that make up the league). It seems ridiculous to impose this arbitrary line here.

    • Jonathan Hoffmann says:

      I agree with Ray and Kim; simply the name, Barclay’s Premier League, indicates how enter-twined banking and English professional soccer are. These players drawing a line with Wonga seems a bit arbitrary.

      More to Kim’s point, I would like the lack of advertising on football, baseball, and basketball jerseys to remain as long as possible. But, as a Horizon Media study shows, the NFL alone could be missing out on $230 million/year by not allowing adverts on jerseys. It seems unlikely the NFL would leave that figure on the table much longer.

  8. Kim Smith says:

    This is a pretty tricky situation and it should be interesting to see how it plays out. It seems like a lot of the uproar from Newcastle’s fans and community stems from the fact that Wonga is basically a predatory lending type of service, which does not really reflect well on the club. I think it is important to note that the club’s previous sponsor was also a banking service, Virgin Money, albeit a more reputable one. As for advertising on jerseys more generally, I’m used to them on Premier League and La Liga shirts and expect there will be ads on NFL or NBA jerseys at some point, as well. Some NFL teams have started wearing sponsor’s logos on their practice jerseys already.

  9. Thomas McFarland says:

    I never have been-and never will be-a fan of the advertising on jerseys, but this does pose an interesting conundrum for the team. It seems no matter the course of action (provided that the players do not consent to wearing the jerseys with the ads) some contract is going to be broken. Presumably Wonga entered into the bargain so that all the players on the team wear their logo. If certain player do, specifically certain star players, have no logo or an alternative logo, Wonga is not receiving the full consideration that they bargained for. Likewise, Newcastle contracted with those players to play, not for them to play provided they agree with the ads on their jerseys. Newcastle also probably doesn’t want to capitulate to the players’ demands (if they refuse to wear it) due to the precedent it will set going forward, much like the Spain-Seville situation. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out over the next coming Newcastle games.