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Sunderland and Paolo Di Canio appear to have temporarily smoothed the waters regarding claims that the English Premier League club’s new manager is a fascist, but what damage will the undercurrent of controversy do to the club’s sponsor relations?

Sunderland has recently undergone somewhat of a commercial revolution. Before the start of the current season, the club replaced Umbro with Adidas as the club’s official kit supplier, and swapped bingo operator Tombola for Invest in Africa as its lucrative new shirt sponsor.

Further deals were agreed around the pre-season period with secondary ticketing distributor StubHub and betting operators BetButler and TLC88.com.

These deals have not only bolstered the club’s sponsorship revenue but there appears to be an upward shift in the calibre of partners being targeted.  

Invest in Africa is a business initiative founded to dispel misconceptions about African commerce and to encourage new investors to the continent. Global oil and gas exploration company Tullow Oil is the primary founding partner behind Invest in Africa and the main financial source of the Sunderland deal. 

The sponsorship emerged after Tullow Oil became aware of the community work being done by Sunderland’s official charity, the Foundation of Light. Tullow Oil was running similar educational programmes in Africa and spoke to Sunderland about collaborating on social projects and marketing efforts.

Discussions progressed to Sunderland becoming the ‘face’ of Invest in Africa’s advertising campaign, using the power of the Premier League for global promotion. 

Research initially placed Invest in Africa’s sponsorship fee at around £20 million per season, ranking it among the shirt deals agreed by Premier League behemoths Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool.

Having spoken to Mike Farnan, international and national marketing director of Sunderland, in August last year, that figure proved to be wholly inaccurate with less than half of the original reported sum being  attributed to sponsorship of the club shirt.

Nevertheless, Invest in Africa, or Tullow Oil, is paying a hefty uplift on the £1.5 million per season fee Tombola was investing previously.

Sunderland has recently further cemented its relationship with Africa by announcing a tie-up with the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a partnership which was formally announced on the match day which saw Sunderland defeated 1-0 by Manchester United and Martin O’Neill lose his job.

“The partnership aims to help to promote the former South African President’s legacy, through the global reach of the Barclays Premier League,” read an official press release from the club.

“At the same time, Sunderland AFC hopes to utilise the organisations’ knowledge and expertise to continue to raise greater awareness of social issues, such as inclusion and diversity and support football’s quest to eradicate racism from within the game.”

Considering the above quote and Sunderland’s determination to campaign for positive change, some might be of the opinion that Di Canio’s appointment is not quite in keeping with the club’s ideals.

However, while it is widely understood that Di Canio is a good-natured and good-humoured individual – you can ask Trevor Sinclair and Chris Powell, apparently – sustained media interest in his past outbursts are unlikely to do Sunderland’s corporate partnerships any favours, especially those which have social equality and inclusion at their core.

And there is precedence for Premier League sponsors becoming unsettled in times of trouble. At the height of the Luis Suarez racism scandal last season, Liverpool shirt sponsor Standard Chartered made its feelings clear when it released a statement suggesting the company was “very disappointed” over the issue and had “discussed concerns with the club.”

The statement released by Di Canio last week, in which he distanced himself from the ideologies of the fascist movement, should go some way to keep Sunderland’s sponsors from intervening at this stage.

But it is probably in the best interests of all concerned, especially with the Invest in Africa contract up for renewal at the end of the season, that Di Canio does all his future talking from the dugouts.

This is a personal perspective of Luke Harman, reporter for Sports Marketing Frontiers.

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