The problem with romance is it so often ends in heartache. And after beating three Premier League teams en route to Wembley Stadium and the Capital One Cup Final, Bradford City, of England’s fourth tier, succumbed without a whimper to Swansea City, a team unused to being cast in the role of Goliath.
Not since Calais made an amazing run to the final of the Coupe de France a decade or so ago has football enjoyed a comparable fairy story. Sure, there have been giant killings throughout Europe but they’ve tended to be one-offs. Putting together a run and making the final – well, that’s another matter altogether.
In the end it was all too much for Bradford. They were simply played off Wembley’s big, lush pitch and didn’t manage a single shot until the final minute. But so much for the game. Let’s take a while to think about the sponsors, the credit card company Capital One. They reckon that this year’s competition has done a lot to get the brand recognised as a credit card in the UK market and, if that’s what they were paying the big bucks for that’s okay.
But as an observer not privy to boardroom decisions it’s difficult not to feel that the Bradford City story and the massive media coverage which attended it, helped Capital One get out of jail…but for how long. On another year, with two mid ranking Premier League teams in the final, would it have had the same impact?
Of course the Capital One Cup Final – and let’s face it they are only the latest in a long line of sponsors of the League Cup – is usually a fine occasion. But that’s because it is taken out of the context of the rest of a competition which more or less limps along until the later stages. Like other cup competitions in European football it suffers from the new dynamics of a game which is mostly about getting access to the money which is vested in the top leagues of the major markets and in the UEFA Champions League. It’s a sad fact of life that everything, including the age old FA Cup, is secondary.
It’s easy to ask why any commercial brand would want to pay money to be associated with a competition that many clubs simply don’t care about. In fact, it’s a competition that not even second level teams tend to care about if they think they have a shot at the big time. It’s all to do with priorities and this one comes way down the list.
Listen to those well-rehearsed experts and they’ll tell you that sponsorship is all about connecting through shared passions, being part of striving for excellence and aiming to be the best – those virtues which transfer so glibly from the sporting to business vocabularies. But the former League Cup is no longer about that. It’s about risk aversion and picking teams which may get you through to the next round while the big boys are saved for Saturday. If you go through great…if you lose – who cares?
All of which makes the people at Capital One pretty smart. One can only assume they knew what they were buying and set their objectives and expectations against that. If they wanted to be seen as the most prestigious credit card brand in the country the League Cup wasn’t for them. But, like all good sponsors, they seem to have set clear objectives and measured the likely returns against the fee they paid…and then they went for it.
That’s the great thing about sponsorship. There’s no such thing as one size fits all and brands which make a success of a competition which some think was dying on its feet deserve to be congratulated because they are doing other brands and sport a favour by showing them how it can be done. Here’s to Accrington Stanley in 2014!
This is a personal perspective of Kevin Roberts, editorial director of SportBusiness Group.