Friday, July 16, 2010

Aon has to go way out of town to find sports franchise worthy of corporate name

Am I the only one who thinks it odd that when Chicago-based Aon, a leading provider of insurance and risk management services, decides to get into the business of corporate sponsorship of athletics, they turn to another nation for an appropriate sports franchise?

It was this week that Aon officials announced their four-year deal with Manchester United, one of the premier sports franchises of the world (I don’t want to hear from fans of the Dallas Cowboys). It will now be the Aon logo that gets stretched across the front of the jerseys Man U players will wear – which essentially turns every football match the team plays worldwide into a billboard for Aon.

MEANWHILE, WE HERE in Chicago have our own professional football franchise (real football, not that silly game the Chicago Bears play) in the form of the Chicago Fire. Who do we Chicago soccer fans have to see on our team’s jerseys when they take the field – none other than Minnesota-based Best Buy.

An international conglomerate, versus a chain of stores that people go to in order to buy cheap appliances and other electronics.

That has to say something about the status of soccer in this country – perhaps we in the United States will know that our country’s professional league (the awkwardly-named Major League Soccer) has finally reached a significant level (instead of being a training ground for U.S. citizens who later get sold to European or Latin American teams) when Aon decides it would rather have a future sports sponsorship with its hometown team, or a home country franchise, rather than reach out to England for an advertising deal.

For the record, the deal between Manchester United and Aon took effect June 1. But officials waited until the team was in the Chicago-area as part of their summer U.S./Canada tour – during which they’re playing exhibitions against U.S. teams (they’re playing the Major League Soccer all-stars July 28 in Houston, among other matches).

IT IS A coup for Aon to be able to have their name across the front of the Manchester United jerseys. About the only comparable U.S. deal they could have negotiated would have been some sort of sponsorship deal with the New York Yankees (who themselves have had their own marketing partnerships throughout the years with Manchester United).

Still, a part of me can’t help but perceive this as a snub of sorts.

Not that it is necessary for corporations that decide to get into the “fun” of sports through sponsorships to be from the home cities of their respective teams. Heck, even team ownership doesn’t have to be, strictly speaking, a hometown deal.

Take the late George Steinbrenner, whom just about everybody thinks of as an honorary New Yorker, even though he preferred to live in Tampa, Fla., was a Cleveland native, and actually had more personal ties to a place like East Chicago, Ind., than he did to New York proper.

PERHAPS THAT IS the same thing that could happen with Aon being connected in image to Manchester United. It definitely will give Aon a more international reputation. But it could also wind up having the effect of making Manchester United a more prominent part of our own local sporting scene.

Take Thursday, which corporate types declared to be Aon United Global Day, and celebrated with events at Millenium Park. They were part of events held 120 countries meant to promote fundraising and volunteer work. Locally, theyw ere meant to promote youth programs in the Chicago Park District and Special Olympics Chicago.

Which means that these kind of corporate sponsorship deals go beyond the activity on the football pitch.

To the degree that such a connection would increase local interest in soccer, that could be a good thing. Insofar as competition for attention for the Chicago Fire, I honestly believe that a little competition for attention could be what motivates U.S. soccer franchises to improve their overall quality of play.

A BETTER MATCH on the pitch is what it will take to get people here to reduce the amount of time they spend following the professional leagues of nations such as England or Italy, or any of the Latin American leagues whose matches are readily available on Spanish-language television.

Now I know some people who are determined to think of soccer as something perpetually “too foreign” to fit into our society are going to complain about the advertising on the jersey – which hasn’t been too common in U.S. sports culture. Our sports teams traditionally have plastered advertising signage all over their stadiums so that broadcasts of the ballgames turn into virtual advertising for Coca-Cola, or whatever product is up for grabs.

We’re going to hear arguments that wearing more logos is tacky. Yet I honestly don’t think its any more annoying than some of the incredibly awkward names that sports stadiums now carry (Reliant Park in Houston, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia). It has come to the point where the once-offensive U.S. Cellular Field is one of the better sounding stadium names in existence.

If anything, the Aon logo is too simple to be tacky.


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