Being the main shirt sponsor for Manchester United is quite the honour in commercial circles. From Sharp, to AIG and Aon, it can thrust a company’s name into the mainstream when their logo dons the iconic red shirt. They are rarely forgotten.
But midway through next season, something unique in Premier League terms could happen to the front of United’s jersey.
There is a very real chance United could be forced to change their shirt sponsor mid-season, meaning a possible new kit, a redesigned one or even a blank shirt for the remainder of the campaign.
Amid the financial uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, United and current shirt sponsors Chevrolet agreed a pragmatic no-cost extension to their current arrangement, meaning it will now expire December 2021 rather than in the summer, as is the norm.
MEN Sport understands United were keen to allow Chevrolet, owned by American car giants General Motors, an extra six months to allow for remaining payments to be made. There’s barely an industry or sector around the world that hasn’t been affected by covid-19, of course.
United sources admit there are still several possible scenarios for next season’s shirt. Fans could see an entirely new sponsor — which would need a special agreement from General Motors — or Chevrolet may extend their contract further, wrapping up the whole 2021/22 campaign to complete an eight-year stint on the front of United’s shirt.
The third, and potentially most tantalising solution for purists among United’s fanbase, is a blank shirt with no sponsor below the club crest and Adidas badge, or a charity sponsor.
“It is too soon to discuss details of what will happen to the shirt beyond the current agreement,” United managing director Richard Arnold told a United Fans’ Forum in November.
“We have various options and time to work through the issues. We will keep fans firmly in mind as we consider these options.”
There is some precedent to follow, albeit in the Championship rather than the Premier League. QPR did it in 2019/20 when their sponsor Royal Panda pulled out of the UK market in the middle of a league campaign. BetUK took it over until the end of the season as they were the parent company.
And while not changing mid-season as such, the rearranged season, due to covid, last term meant Chelsea wore their new kit — sponsored by mobile phone company Three — for games in July.
Jeff McCarthy, senior lecturer in marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and expert in sports sponsorship, believes it could be unlikely that United fans see a new shirt sponsor in 2021/22.
He said:“United could potentially negotiate a further six-month extension with General Motors, taking it to June 2022. This may help both companies in a period of real uncertainty. General Motors may use that time to select another brand to sponsor and the obvious desired outcome for United is to find a new long-term sponsor.
“If United aren’t able to achieve that ahead of January 2022, they could ‘donate’ their shirt sponsorship to a charity. Clearly that would mean a big temporary hit to commercial revenues but may pay off in the longer-term.”
There are obvious concerns for United if they are forced into a mid-season change.
McCarthy added: ” Because kit launches are usually done early August, fans may understandably be reluctant to pay for a kit they know is likely to change, especially when it’s the main shirt sponsor.
“United may proceed with an August kit launch as usual, with the likelihood of reduced sales on launch. They may however experience a higher than usual surge in sales of the newer version with new sponsor in December 2021 or January 2022 but this is unlikely to be at the levels of usual kit launches overall.”
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It is understood United continue to negotiate with multiple potential sponsors for the future, whether they take it on mid-campaign, or at the end of next season. As is now common practice, they have been sending replica shirts to the potential sponsors with different brand names on.
United remain very confident of their commercial appeal, the robust business side to the club and the general allure of that red shirt to prospective sponsors. While covid-19 has obviously decimated the club’s matchday revenue, in sponsorship terms they are coping well thanks to television and digital coverage.
‘Unprecedented times’ has been a buzz phrase of the past 10 months, and that is no different in the world of football sponsorship.