News Analysis: Mobile brands play tactical game

As T-Mobile and Orange follow Vodafone and O2 onto the football pitch, success is far from assured. 'Too much football kills the football' is how Maurice Levy, chief executive of Publicis, described the state of the beautiful game last week at the announcement of the group's third-quarter results.

Levy's stark warning that football is starting to lose its value among both sponsors and fans came as he urged clubs to be careful not to lower the sport's commercial value through overexposure and an overwillingness to cash in on any opportunity. Add this to the fact that Premiership attendances are reported to be 6% down on last year, and it seems that football fatigue could be setting in.

This is not good news for two of the UK's biggest mobile phone companies, Orange and T-Mobile, both of which have ploughed several million pounds into linking their brands with football since the start of this season.

The six-figure deals struck by Orange and T-Mobile now extend to half of the Premiership's clubs. The agreements are based on a revenue-share basis, with the clubs receiving a commission payment for content and services, while the operators are handed numerous branding opportunities within the clubs' stadia, fanzines and websites.

Beyond these deals, O2's sponsorship of Arsenal is worth £6m over two years, while Vodafone backs Manchester United to the tune of £36m over four years, which suggests that an association with football is a highly valuable commodity.

Club-relevant content

T-Mobile's head of sponsorship, Toby Hester, points out that the mobile companies' ability to offer club-branded content and interactivity means they are particularly well-positioned to tap into and enhance fans' love of the game and club loyalty. He rejects the notion that football has reached saturation point and no longer offers good sponsorship value.

Rupert Vitoria, head of sales at Southampton Football Club, agrees.

He claims mobile phone companies benefit from their association with top-flight clubs by being able to provide tailored revenue-generating services to a captive audience. 'It's a very lucrative marketing opportunity for them', he says. 'We can give them access to the biggest ready-made buying group on the South coast.'

Vitoria points out that for clubs such as Southampton, the benefits of linking up with a mobile operator are more than financial. 'We want to provide as many branded services as possible to our fans and don't want to be left behind by new delivery platforms or media,' he says. 'Mobile gives us a new way of reaching our fans on a one-to-one basis and delivering the latest news from the club.'

Crucially for the phone companies, offering premium content to football fans provides a way of driving up user revenue, as they aim to reduce their reliance on voice-generated services.

Content includes ringtones, wallpaper and goal alerts via text message, and operators plan to offer exclusive one-off handset deals and phone tariffs to fans, which will be promoted in conjunction with the football clubs.

Orange and T-Mobile are keen to use football as a way of introducing consumers to the benefits of their planned 3G offerings, by providing video content in the form of highlights and goals, which will be rolled out gradually over this season.

Vodafone and 3 have already secured the 3G rights to immediate post-match Premiership highlights, but there will still be opportunities for other operators to provide delayed highlights.

The mobile firms also plan to use the tie-ups to boost brand awareness and subscriptions in specific regions. Hester says T-Mobile has traditionally focused on London, but through deals with clubs such as Aston Villa, hopes to broaden its appeal in the Midlands, where rival 3 is particularly strong.

By broadening their appeal in this way, however, mobile companies risk falling foul of fierce inter-club rivalries. T-Mobile, for instance, sponsors West Bromwich Albion and has content deals with Aston Villa and Birmingham City, whose fans are unlikely to want to be associated with each other in any way beyond the fact they live in the same city.

Cautious approach

Orange's head of brand and commercial partnerships, Julian Diment, agrees that brands have to be careful about how they approach the sport. But he points out that unlike high-profile sponsorships such as Vodafone's link with Manchester United, the Orange partnerships are less about brand-building and more about empowering fans of different clubs to become even more involved with their teams. He claims that Orange has already witnessed revenue increase in regions where its clubs are based.

There are few more loyal consumer groups than football fans. If operators manage to convert the lion's share to mobile content, the financial rewards may well be huge. But by the same token, if the operators get it wrong, the consequences for the brand could be dire.

So when it comes to capitalising on football fans' fidelity, mobile phone operators will need to tread carefully to avoid scoring a spectacular own goal in line with Levy's prophecy.

DATA FILE - FOOTBALL TIE-UPS

Content partnership deals

Orange - Blackburn Rovers, Bolton, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester

City.

T-Mobile - Aston Villa, Birmingham, Charlton, Southampton and West

Bromwich Albion.

Club sponsor deals

O2 - Arsenal 2004-2006, £6m.

T-Mobile - West Bromwich Albion 2004-2006.

Vodafone - Manchester United 2004-2008, £36m.

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