Vanity Sponsorship

On 1 November on the Caribbean island of Antigua, the England cricket team was soundly beaten by the Stanford All Stars (almost the West Indes team) in the Stanford 20/20 competition. The victorious All Stars will be rewarded with a remarkable $1m US per player for this single match, with substantial amounts also available for the backroom staff and the cricket boards.

The brainchild of Texan businessman Sir Allen Stanford, the whole week-long series of matches has been condemned in much of the UK media as a meaningless money-making exercise (see, for example, Mike Atherton in The Times). With Sir Allen staging the matches at his own private ground, the whole spectacle gives the impression of a supreme act of vanity.

Question: What do you buy the man who has everything?  .
Answer: His own cricket tournament with top players competing for the biggest prize in the history of the sport.

What might be termed “Vanity Sponsorship” is by no means a new phenomenon in sport but it seems to be a growing trend. The most visible example is the spate of wealthy foreign owners of English and Scottish football clubs, such as Vladimir Romanov, majority shareholder of Heart of Midlothian FC.

The general pattern is that an astonishingly rich man or men (I haven’t seen any women involved) approaches a sporting institution and offers to invest sufficient money to restore them to their rightful place at the pinnacle of their sport. A business plan is brandished, which tantalises with a scheme for world domination in three to five years. In return for their largesse, the new owner or benefactor seeks public adulation and the right to have their whims indulged. Occasionally there are rumours of other political or economic motives as well.

One or two years later the relationship between benefactor and sponsored organisation sours, often resulting in the acrimonious departure of the sponsor, minus a large chunk of their fortune. The sporting institution somehow muddles on, amid much hand-wringing and calls for tighter regulation.

I am all for good financial governance in sport but a dose of realism is necessary. The leaders of sporting institutions are by their nature desperate for success. It would be surprising if they were to turn down a major investment, even with strings attached. Similarly professional athletes, who have short and insecure careers, will naturally welcome the chance of a windfall. Supporters may find the whole thing distasteful (as parodied in a Budweiser football advert) but ultimately they also want to see victory.

In short, rich men will continue to indulge themselves with vanity sponsorship and some of them will end up looking like fools. As for Sir Allen Stanford, he may just have spotted an opportunity to revive West Indes cricket that traditional brand sponsors had missed. Only time will tell. 

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