UAE the champions of European football investment

This country tops the table when it comes to investment in and sponsorship of clubs across the continent. That reflects a growth of financial involvement from around Middle East.

Spanish midfielder David Silva celebrates after scoring a goal for Manchester City. Abu Dhabi United Group bought the Sky Blues in 2008 and the club is sponsored by Etihad Airways. Carl Recine / Reuters
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LONDON // The region’s army of football fans will have mixed emotions this weekend after Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City exited the Champions League on Wednesday at the hands of Qatar Airways-sponsored Barcelona.

While hugely popular here – December’s opening in Dubai of the first overseas Real Madrid Cafe is testament to that – for Middle East companies the appeal of the beautiful game in Europe, already high, is only likely to grow.

The latest Emerging Giants report from the research consultancy Repucom says 20 of Europe's top clubs are now sponsored in some way by Arabian Gulf airlines. This list includes: Barcelona (Qatar Airways); AC Milan, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid (all sponsored by Emirates); and Manchester City (Etihad).

Repucom's research shows the UAE was the single biggest investor in shirt sponsorship in Europe between 2005 and now. The agency's latest European Football Jersey Report says that across the Primera Division in Spain, the German Bundesliga, the English Premier League (EPL), the Dutch Eredivisie, Serie A in Italy and Ligue 1 in France, UAE companies spent a total of €120 million (Dh470.7m) last season.

“When looking at shirt sponsorship deals in the top six European football leagues over the last 10 years, Middle East companies have increased their overall share by 26 per cent,” says Ned Morris, Repucom’s senior vice president for the Middle East. “Investment from the Middle East now accounts for 18 per cent of the total sponsorship spend into these leagues.

“As recently as the 2009/10 season, shirt sponsorship by Middle East companies was only worth around US$24.6m. By 2013/14, it was six times greater.

“Of the top five biggest football sponsoring brands in Europe, three are now Middle East companies – the Qatar Tourism Authority, Emirates and Etihad.”

Emirates says each of its sponsorships is considered on the basis of four main criteria: “It must be a sport or an event which reflects the quality of Emirates; the event must be relevant to an Emirates destination; the event must have guaranteed television coverage and there must be a measurable return on the investment,” an airline spokesman said. Evidence of increasing Middle East investment in European football can be seen with Qatar.

In 2010, Barcelona reached a five-year, €165.5m deal with the Qatar Foundation for its name to appear on the back of the shirts. In 2013, the club announced its first ever corporate shirt sponsorship – a three-year €35m deal with Qatar Airways, whose logo appears of the front. Qatar spent a total of €39m last season on shirt sponsorship – up from €37.5m in the previous season – according to Repucom. The country’s financial involvement extends beyond Barcelona to Qatar’s Aspire Zone Foundation’s ownership of the Belgian second-tier side KAS Eupen.

Meanwhile, the Kuwaiti businessman Fawaz Mubarak Al Hasawi owns the English Championship side Nottingham Forest and Prince Abdullah bin Musaed of Saudi Arabia owns half of Sheffield United, which is a league lower than the two-times former European Cup winners, in League One.

Typically though, involvement is with more high-profile clubs.

In the 2014 Deloitte Football Money League, six of the 20 biggest clubs in terms of income were sponsored by Middle East airlines: Barcelona and Real Madrid (Spain); Arsenal and Manchester City (England); AC Milan (Italy); and Hamburger SV (Germany).

Mr Morris says the growth of investments and sponsorships is driven by three factors: regional expansion in the entertainment sector in the Middle East, a conservative population, and national brand-buildings.

“With the growth of television and internet, the appetite for entertainment has surged across the Middle East. The English Premier League and other European football properties are among the many imports into the region,” says Mr Morris.

“The Middle East populations are generally more conservative socially and culturally than their western counterparts.

“Sport is certainly much less controversial than much of the entertainment from the music or the film industries and can be freely shown and promoted without repercussions,” he adds.

This shift into European football kicked off in 2004 when Emirates signed a 15-year sponsorship deal with the EPL club Arsenal, which included renaming the club’s stadium after the airline.

Since then, the Emirates brand has grown with the number of shirt sponsorship deals agreed. In 2007, it signed a three-year deal with AC Milan that has since been extended, as it has a shirt sponsorship contract with the leading Greek side Olympiacos, which was first inked in 2008.

Such backing extends beyond shirt sponsorship. In January 2012, AC Milan visited Dubai for an Emirates-sponsored winter training camp to play in the Dubai Football Challenge against the French giants Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), which is also sponsored by the airline. AC Milan has also played in the annual pre-season Emirates Cup tournament hosted by Arsenal.

However, in some cases, sponsorships do not work out as planned. Olympiacos were recently knocked out of the Europa League. The club was still top of the Super League only for the Greek government to indefinitely suspend the competition after violence between fans of Olympiacos and its fierce rivals Panathinaikos.

In Germany, Emirates has sponsored Hamburg since 2006 but the deal runs out at the end of this season and the club is dangerously close to relegation. In an interview with the  German business newspaper Handelsblatt, the Emirates executive vice-president Thierry Antinori was reported as suggesting the sponsorship may not be renewed if Hamburg is relegated.

James M Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the forthcoming book The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, says investors and sponsors from this region fall into three groups.

“In the first class, at Manchester City and PSG, the investment and associated sponsorship is buying soft power,” says Mr Dorsey. “The difference is that the Qataris are strategic and the UAE are opportunistic.

“In the second category, money goes into a club for whatever period of time then the owner loses interest and realises it’s a vanity project that is going to cost them money and the club is left holding the bag.”

The third category he identifies comprises of “businessmen who are serious and see it as a way of making money and have a strategy to build the club up”, such as Sheffield United’s part-owner, Prince Abdullah.

The rationale for further financial involvement from this region remains.

“The growth of the Middle East economies means that companies in these markets have more substantial funds to invest in developed markets,” says Mr Morris.

“The investment needed to acquire outright ownership or large stakes in top-tier sports businesses is relatively small.”

With European football’s popularity ever growing, more Middle East investors are likely to see that as a winning goal.

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