A history of sponsorship

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By Rob Carey

Sponsorship in sport is big business, it is a significant source of revenue for major teams and leagues. In 2019, three of the biggest clubs in the English Premier League, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Chelsea, derived around a quarter of their income from sponsorship deals.

These sponsorship deals see brand logos emblazoned on club websites, around stadiums, and sometimes even for naming rights of stands and buildings. One of the most lucrative ad spots is the team jerseys.

While TV cameras will pick up advertising displayed around the outside of a pitch, nothing is as prominent as the logos printed on the front of a player’s shirt as he or she is featured in a close-up shot.

In some sports, this kind of advertising is relatively new, with the NBA only first allowing sponsorship of jerseys in 2017 and restricting it heavily, permitting only a small embroidered patch.

In other sports though, sponsors’ logos appearing on team jerseys is a decades-old practice.

Football Pioneers

Kettering-Town-1976-sponsors-Tyres-01An English football team in one of the country’s lower-tier leagues is often credited as being the first team to put a sponsor’s logo on the front of its shirt. Kettering Town Football Club added a local garage’s name to the front of its shirts in exchange for a “four-figure sum”. The words “Kettering Tyres” first appeared in 1976 and very quickly caused a stir in English football.

After several protests, Kettering Town changed the wording to just say ‘Kettering T’, claiming that it was short for the team’s name. The Football Association was having none of it though and threatened the club with a fine, with the club relenting shortly afterwards.

Kettering was not the first football team to try sponsorship though. To find the pioneering team you actually need to go back two decades when Uruguayan side Peñarol first put a sponsor’s name on its shirt. Some teams in continental European countries then tried to follow suit, but their governing bodies moved to block it.

Motor Racing


Motorsport was less averse to sponsorship, possibly because of the additional costs required to run a team that builds and maintains high-performance race cars. At the first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950, tyre manufacturers’ logos could be seen on marker boards at the side of the track, a practice still used today.

Driver overalls were quickly turned into billboards along with the cars, with practically no restrictions on the number or type of sponsors that could be placed on either. Today, it’s not uncommon to see drivers with dozens of different logos embroidered across their torsos, with more on their helmets, gloves, and both inside and outside their cars.


Esports, which are competitive video game leagues and tournaments, have grown in popularity in recent years. Events are often held in large arenas with live audiences, commentary teams, and live streaming for people all over the world. It is estimated that around one billion people watch esports, with this number expected to grow dramatically in 2020.

While playing video games competitively is not a new concept, the first tournament was the Intergalactic Spacewar! Olympics, which took place at Stanford University in 1972. However, it has only been the last decade that esports has become commercialised to a significant extent.

In doing so, it has attracted larger amounts of sponsorship from companies like Dell, Intel, and Red Bull. Like in traditional sports, some esports teams have taken to selling sponsorship space on their jerseys. For example, the McLaren team in the F1 Esports Series has sponsors feature on its teamwear.

The Future

Southampton-2017-2018-Under-Armour-home-kit-01The history of sponsorship on jerseys is still being written. Teams are always looking for new ways to increase their revenue, and unlike motor racing, most other sports still have a lot of empty space that they can fill.

In 2016, Premier League clubs in England began exploring the option of selling sponsorship space on their sleeves for the first time. The first logos appeared in 2017 after rule changes were made by the FA.

In the US, where sports teams work on a ‘profit maximisation’ model instead of a ‘utility maximisation’ (sporting success) model, jersey sponsorship is still pretty restricted. It’s likely this too will change over time, however.

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