Leeds United and the San Francisco 49ers: An Unlikely Partnership

In 1994, the FIFA World Cup was played in nineteen cities of the United States for the first time.  This marked an historic moment for soccer in the U.S.A.  The largest growing youth sport in the nation was thrust into the public eye.  The 1994 World Cup was a massive financial success and paved the way for the inaugural season of Major League Soccer, a top flight soccer league which would soon carve out a sizeable piece of the sports landscape in the U.S.

As America’s interest in soccer continues to grow, American businesses and corporate sponsors look to seize opportunities to link up with soccer organizations from all over the world.  Most recently, Sky Bet Championship team, Leeds United, announced a partnership with the NFL’s own San Francisco 49ers.  Leeds United announced this partnership on their official website, stating:

This is a strategic partnership and we’re looking forward to working closely with the 49ers.  They are a worldwide brand, and we’ll be discussing all aspects of our business; marketing, ticketing, merchandising, and commercial opportunities, and hopefully tapping into and sharing knowledge with them.

Paraag Marathe, Chief Operating Officer of the 49ers, shared similar sentiments in the announcement.  Some of the nuances of the partnership appear to be vague and it leaves much to the imagination.  It is strange to see a storied franchise such as the 49ers partner with a soccer team that plays in the second division in England.  Surely a team that ranked seventeenth on Forbes’ most valuable sports franchises in 2013 could partner with a more currently prominent soccer club.  However, both of these teams have much to gain from this partnership, specifically in marketing and financial accountability. This partnership between the two teams still appears to need to be more clearly defined.  Some have speculated there may be some cross promotional advertising between the two sides, however, the 49ers would not have nearly as much to gain from such promotion.

The NFL has played at least one regular season game at Wembley Stadium in London since 2007, but the market for American football in other parts of the world is extremely small.  Despite the interest of some British sports fans to bring an NFL team to England, consider the failure of NFL Europe, an American football league based in European nations and the United Kingdom that closed in 2007.  Leeds could benefit from such cross promotion, increasing exposure to American sports fans, even if it only reaches a limited audience.

Leeds United has been consigned to playing in second and third divisions since 2001 and has not played in the top flight Premier League since 2004.  Despite financial misgivings and relegation, the club has maintained a loyal fan base.  The 49ers organization could gain insight from the unique culture of popularity surrounding Leeds and look for ways to apply the tenets of that culture to their own organization and fan base.  There are very few NFL teams that have the resources to closely study the marketing strategies employed by soccer clubs to entice fans to attend games faithfully week after week.  Even successful NFL teams, such as the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers, have had struggles with drawing fans to the stadiums.  Besides the Packers, the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals faced an embarrassing situation this past season, with playoff games threatening to be blacked out by the NFL due to not selling out.  The NFL would do well to study a team such as Leeds to discover the reasons for their fan loyalty.

Despite the stability from the faithful supporters, Leeds United has seen a drastic shift in ownership groups in the past eighteen months.  The majority owners of the club are David Haigh and Andrew Flowers, managing directors of Leeds’ very own corporate sponsor Enterprise Insurance.  Haigh and Flowers led an investors group on January 15th to buy at least seventy-five per cent of the club from Bahrain-based company Gulf Finance House Capital (GFHC).  Shortly before the most recent sale, Leeds announced its partnership with the 49ers.  GFHC had sent mixed messages to the public upon its purchase of Leeds, as sources claimed that GFHC intended to sell the club for a profit over time, while GFHC executives claimed to provide stability for the organization by selling minority stakes to various investors.  In early 2013,GFHC sold 10% of its stake to International Investment Bank (IIB), another Bahraini corporation.  Having a committed and financially responsible ownership group is essential to the success of sports teams.  Leeds has recently not had such consistency in its ownership groups and it currently sits eleventh in the Sky Bet Championship.

Perhaps British investors led by Haigh and Flowers are interested in learning from a stable ownership group in the York family. Since 2000, John York and his son Jed have turned the 49ers from an irrelevant team to a championship contender while also building a brand new stadium that will open this fall, the first pro football stadium to be built in California in fifty years.  Leeds United might benefit by learning some of the strategies that the 49ers used in engineering such an impressive feat.

Leeds United and the 49ers have much in common as both have enjoyed great periods of success in the past and both teams are historic in their own regard.  This may be one of the first partnerships between NFL and soccer organizations but it certainly will not be the last.  Shahid Khan, current owner of BPL club Fulham FC, is also the owner of NFL team Jacksonville Jaguars.

Partnerships between American sports franchises and soccer organizations may become a trend in the business of sports.  In 2013, the New York Yankees and Manchester City partnered up to sponsor a new MLS franchise, the New York City FC.  The Yankees have also partnered up with Manchester United in a joint promotional agreement and sharing of marketing information.  Sports organizations are gaining valuable insight from looking at the strategies and inner workings of other teams both in and out of their respective fields.  Only time will tell how this unique partnership will develop, but one thing is for sure: the sports landscape in the United States is changing yet again, and those who do not get on board will find themselves left at the station.


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Reporting on the business side of the world's game.