The opening weekend of the Premier League in August 1992 was a parochial affair. Only 13 footballers from outside the UK and Ireland played, and there were no foreign managers or owners at all. Even the logos on the teams’ shirts had a homespun feel. A look back at images from that weekend reveals names such as the Norwich and Peterborough Building Society (who sponsored the Norfolk club) and Draper Tools, a family-run hand tools company near Southampton. One club, Wimbledon, did not even have a shirt sponsor.
Fast forward to 2018, and the landscape has changed beyond recognition. The value of Premier League shirt sponsorship has mushroomed to over £300 million, while it is not just the fronts of kits which are of interest to sponsors: as of last year, sleeves could be bought too.
The expanding market is a reflection of the league’s increasingly global appeal. In 1992-93, with only 60 matches televised a year in the UK, and under two million subscribers to Sky Sports, much shirt sponsorship was still focused on advertising to those in the grounds themselves. There was a commercial sense for a Nottingham brewer – Shipstone’s – plastering their brand over the shirts of Forest.
Now, there are 168 Premier League games televised live in the UK each season and, more importantly, the Premier League is shown in 212 countries and territories. Outside the UK, with no restrictions on watching 3 pm kickoffs on a Saturday, it is possible for fans to watch any game they wish to. Sponsors are more likely to be targeting an Asian television audience than an East Midlands beer.
The changing nature of Premier League shirt sponsorship is not only an emblem of the league’s transformation into a global behemoth – it also provides a window into broader shifts in the economy in the UK and far beyond.