One major benefactor from the restrictions placed on the Premier League clubs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the clubs major sponsors. With virtually every game, both in league and cup, being shown live on one channel or another, the clubs main sponsors are getting significantly more air time and in more prominent places.
Whilst Arsenal’s current form is nothing short of woeful, watching the Carabao Cup Quarter-Final against Manchester City at a fan-less Emirates Stadium revealed the huge advertising covers that have been used to cover the seats in the lower tier of the stadium. Whilst adidas has pride of place, you cannot fail to notice the ‘Visit Rwanda’ ones at both ends of the group, backing up the decal advertising on the shirt.
It may seem like a strange choice of sponsor. There is no natural synergy between Arsenal and Rwanda and there’s no clear charitable element. Football clubs have a reputation for agreeing to put most logos on their shirts, without any real motivation to do so apart from cash. But an advert for Africa’s 46th biggest country and the 118th most visited country by tourists (based on Worldbank figures from 2018) does seem to be tenuous to say the least.
So, is it a genius deal from someone on the commercial side at Arsenal or a bizarre deal from someone high up in Rwanda? Well, neither so it seems.
The three year deal signed by the Rwanda Development Board (RDB) back in May 2018 was rumoured to have cost £30 million. Unsurprisingly, such as huge commercial deal for a country whose total GDP is around $10.2 billion raised more than a few eyebrows especially as the country’s wealth per capita is just $750 per annum.
But based on research by the RDB, the country has seen “benefits” valued at over £36 million in the first full year of the deal. Naturally, statistics can be used to demonstrate many things, and for such a big investment, the RDB went out to sports research and consulting firm Nielsen, social media and sponsorship measurement provider Blinkfire Analytics, and research agency Hall and Partners to back up the data.
The agencies used social media, TV viewership and other clever ways to value commercial deals to suggest that Rwanda saw a return on investment in just a year. Belise Kariza, the RDB chief tourism officer, said: “Before the signing of the partnership, 71 per cent of the millions of Arsenal fans globally did not think of Rwanda as a tourist destination, at the end of the first year of the partnership half of Arsenal fans would consider Rwanda as a destination to visit.”
I know a couple of dozen Arsenal fans pretty well so I asked them whether having RDB as a main sponsor makes them more or less likely to want to visit Rwanda. Their answers was unanimous. If it meant owner Stan Kroenke actually spent some of his own money on the team, then absolutely. But otherwise, no.
There is no doubt that Rwanda is an amazing destination for visitors – gorilla trekking in the Volcanoes National Park is one of the most amazing natural expeditions in the world, whilst Kigali, the capital city continues to develop and modernise as a great place to visit. Kariza added: “I think really on the visibility it is paying off. It is also paying off in terms of people visiting from the UK. In 2018 we had a five per cent increase in visitors from the UK market only.”
But how many of those visitors came because of the Arsenal deal? That’s one stat that none of the consulting firms could define. Football sponsorship tends to work on three levels:
Level 1 – Home fans buy into the new sponsor and will actively choose that brand when presented with a choice – that is why gambling companies are falling over themselves to get involved in football – the product (betting) is the same, the differentiator is the new customer bonuses and loyalty to “our” brand. Another example is a former Arsenal shirt sponsor – JVC, where Gunners fans would perhaps choose JVC, even if there was a small price premium, when choosing their Audio and Visual equipment.
Level 2 – Home fans are ambivalent to the shirt sponsor and will never engage with them either through choice or because it is simply irrelevant to them – this is where Visit Rwanda will rank on the vast majority of Arsenal fans. They won’t have the resources or the inclination. To them that sponsor could be Visit Armenia, Zambia or Uzbekistan and it would make no difference to their willingness to engage.
Level 3 – Rival fans will actively avoid engaging with the brand even if it is the natural choice for them. Arsenal fans avoided buying or drinking Holstein during the 1990s as they were the shirt sponsor for Tottenham Hotspur. So presented with a choice of unusual African destinations to go to, Rwanda may no longer be the top choice for Spurs, Chelsea, West Ham or Leyton Orient fans because of the brand association with Arsenal, potentially costing them more than the value of the deal.
COVID has brought significant problems to football clubs up and down the country but it has also delivered some benefits to clubs, especially at the top end of the game. But whether there is a genuine return on investment from some of their deals is still open to interpretation – remember statistics can be used to prove anything.