Last week, Sauber unveiled possibly the least fathomable
sponsorship agreement of recent times. The Swiss team announced
that they had entered a partnership with Premier League side
Chelsea FC, one of the most successful and prestigious teams in
English football. It is a curious agreement which sees two of the
world's richest sports come together - but with no money reportedly
changing hands. So if the motivation is not financial, then what is
the thinking behind the deal?
Firstly, this is not sponsorship as we know it. Yes, the Chelsea
emblem will be displayed on the engine cover of the Sauber C31. But
rather than paying for the privilege, the club will feature the
Sauber logo prominently at its Stamford Bridge ground - the team's
name will flash up on pitch-side billboards and form part of the
backdrop to player interviews. Certainly, this will gain them
exposure. The Premier League promotes itself as "The Greatest Show
on Earth", and most estimates put its audience at nearly seven
hundred million people. F1, meanwhile, attracts well over half a
billion viewers over the course of the season. You'll struggle to
find bigger audiences elsewhere.
But what is strange about this is that each party has no real
need to project itself on the world stage. If the aim is to shift
tickets, then it's not necessary. Chelsea are already struggling to
fit their army of fans into their 45,000 capacity stadium, whilst
Sauber's finances are not directly influenced by the numbers filing
through the gates. It is worth noting that both teams rely heavily
on television revenue, but audience figures (and profits) are
unlikely to increase dramatically as a result of this tenuous link.
But then we haven't considered the "unique commercial
opportunities", one of which is merchandising. There is probably a
small profit to be made here, but it's hard to see followers of
either squad snapping up limited edition shirts or caps because
they feature a different team participating in a different
So what else is there? Chelsea and Sauber have talked of sharing
their knowledge on "sporting science", and there is no doubt that
both footballers and F1 drivers are phenomenal athletes. Each are
required to perform at the highest level for ninety minutes or so
at a time - and this requires cardiovascular fitness and high
stamina. Aside from that, the needs of each are more specialised,
with their training and diets are tailored to their profession.
Perhaps there is some gain to be found in fundamental issues of
fitness, but these are very different disciplines which require
equally different approaches. Additionally, both teams claim to
share a "philosophy towards grassroots development" - but as ever,
it's not easy to know where that shared vision will be applicable.
It's an idea rather than a process.
If we're honest, the likelihood of either profit or sporting
advantage being generated by this partnership is very low. That
leaves one, last intriguing connection: Roman Abramovich. The
Russian billionaire has owned Chelsea for nearly a decade, and
sustained heavy losses during that time. Back in 2004, he was
heavily linked to a buyout of three teams - Jordan, Minardi and
Sauber. During that period the self-confessed motor racing fan met
with various team bosses, and more than once held talks with Bernie
Ecclestone. Ultimately, he did not make a move. Now, however, he
could be seen to be weighing up a second attempt at F1 ownership:
Peter Sauber has already reiterated his desire to step down in the
near future, and his team is currently riding high in both
championships. By branding the feisty C31s with the logo of his
beloved football club, Abramovich is re-establishing old ties and
dipping his toes into the piranha infested waters once more.
When he took over at Chelsea, Abramovich invested hundreds of
millions of pounds in the club in the hunt for trophies. Nine years
down the line, he has won a third FA Cup from four attempts - and
later this month Chelsea will appear in the Champions' League final
for the second time in five years. The Russian has taken a
promising team to the top in one sport, and now all the signs point
to the charismatic billionaire weighing a similar strategy in F1.
Is the Chelsea deal the first sign of a changing of the guard?
We'll have to wait and see.