Think of a Tranmere Rovers shirt, and no doubt the familiar Wirral Borough Council (WBC) logo will come to mind. Having been emblazoned across the front of Tranmere shirts since the 1989/90 season, the two have become synonymous.
The shirt sponsorship deal sprung up as Tranmere’s way of paying off a loan, funded by the council in 1983 that saved the club from going bust. And, although the loan was officially paid off in 1998, the two have continued their long running association.
However, all of this is soon to change. The council have today announced that, as a part of much needed budget cuts, their £135,000 (BBC, 2013) per year sponsorship of Tranmere will cease, ending a 23 year association with the club, the longest running shirt sponsorship deal in the United Kingdom.
The announcement has been coming for some time. WBC are in millions of pounds of debt and many have protested against their sponsorship of the club (indeed, the issue led to an ill informed article in the Telegraph in April and a lengthy debate on the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 shortly afterwards), claiming that the council simply pay Rovers the sponsorship in public money for the return of free tickets to Tranmere matches.
However, if you look a little deeper into the sponsorship, into the fine details that neither Tranmere or the council have given too much publicity to, you will find that the money doesn’t line the pockets of professional footballers, nor those higher up in the club, but instead helps to provides a wide ranging and lengthy number of benefits to the local community, including the disabled, unemployed and local school children.
In 2010 alone, Tranmere carried out over 1,500 coaching sessions on the Wirral, whilst members of the playing squad made approximately 130 visits to schools on Thursday afternoons.
Further to this, the learning centre, behind the giant Kop stand that dwarfs the other three sides of the stadium, has provided endless hours of community exercise sessions (such as zumba) as well as courses for the disabled and unemployed, helping them gain qualifications and get back to work.
These are just a handful of examples of how hundreds of people in the local community have benefited from a partnership between two companies that has blossomed throughout the years, growing into a quite wonderful way of promoting healthy living and an active lifestyle, as well as achieving advantages reaching far beyond football and sport.
All too often, however, these are overlooked. It seems the fashion these days to pick at the negatives of a football club, ignoring the glaringly obviously positives, especially since the Olympics.
Ask a fan of the Wirral club, currently enjoying one of their best seasons in living memory as they sit merrily at the top of the League One table, about the sponsorship and the majority will respond with a great sense of pride. Football fans are, indeed, a tribal bunch, so to be able to advertise the Wirral across the nation has brought a huge amount of pride. The end of such a deal, to many, will be met with disappointment and nostalgia.
However, fans of the club could well draw some positives from the termination of the sponsorship. For starters, as one fan pointed out on Twitter, the news could hardly come at a better time. With Tranmere flying high in the table, they are certainly a more attractive partner to businesses than they were last March when a run of 1 win in 21 matches threatened the club’s League One status.
Secondly, from Tranmere’s perspective, £135,000 is no great amount. If it was to be entirely put towards their playing budget, it would only pay for their entire squad’s wages for, as an estimation, a month. They may now be able to find a more financially attractive deal which can help propel them further up the Football League.
Of course, all good things come to an end, and the termination of the shirt sponsorship, as previously mentioned, is not in any means unexpected. A generation of Tranmere fans will shortly leap into the unknown as they purchase shirts with a new company branding for the first time but that unknown could well bring with it more community support, as those who disagreed with the council’s sponsorship put to bed their grievances, and could help fund future success.
This news, therefore, could have come at just the right time and could add just the little bit more impetus the Wirral club, famed for their cup exploits at the turn of the century, need.
One final note, however, is that upon the end of the club’s partnership with the council, it will be very interesting to see whether Tranmere are able to, or indeed chose to, continue to enjoy such a heavy involvement in the local community.