As debate about Bolton Wanderers and their new shirt sponsors, QuickQuid, rages on amongst the supporters, it is important to remember that the Trotters are not the first team to have a payday loan firm as their primary sponsor. Three clubs immediately come to mind in that regard: Blackpool, Heart of Midlothian, and Newcastle United. We were genuinely curious about the reaction that other clubs' supporters had to the issue facing Bolton's and decided to ask some questions.
Speaking to Lion of Vienna Suite is Robert Bishop, Managing Editor of SB Nation's Newcastle United site, Coming Home Newcastle. In early October of 2012, the Magpies signed a four-year sponsorship deal with payday lenders Wonga.com, replacing Virgin Money on their shirts. The reaction was very similar to what you see coming out of Bolton's support now, with fans and MPs alike (including Ian Lavery, MP for Wansbeck, quoted in the Telegraph) voicing their concerns:
"Financial predators who make their money from people suffering from unemployment, low wages and in the greatest financial need. Newcastle United will be sponsored by the money of deprived people up and down the country."
This type of outcry was very common among the Magpies' fans when the deal was announced. We were curious about what it was like from a Newcastle United perspective and if the feelings had since died down.
Lion of Vienna Suite: When Newcastle United announced that Wonga would be the shirt sponsor, what was your personal opinion of the decision?
Robert Bishop: I was appalled. I live in the United States, so I have to confess that I was only vaguely aware of Wonga's existence before the deal was struck. My experience with payday lending companies has been with the brick-and-mortar stores, which typically set up shop in poorer neighborhoods and prey on people who could use some actual assistance. Studies have shown that wherever these companies go, they bring down the neighborhood around them. I've lobbied my community leaders in the past to keep certain lenders from building in low income areas. It's a topic I'm very passionate about.
In the US, the industry is actually regulated to a certain degree. The APR on payday loans is restricted to 390%, which I feel is still extremely exploitative. You can imagine my shock upon accessing Wonga's website and finding that they offer loans with a representative APR of 4214%! The practice is unsavory at best. I didn't like having them on my club's shirt at first, and I still don't.
LVS: How did the general fanbase react?
RB: There was a small, vocal segment that felt like I do. Most of the debate seemed centered around whether Wonga blue or Virgin Money red was a better complement to the shirt.
LVS: Did that reaction die down at all and do people still feel that way?
RB: It has considerably died down. As I said, many people seemed unfazed by it, and those that were concerned were actually afraid that Wonga would buy stadium naming rights (recall that for a short time, St James' Park was known as Sports Direct Arena). Wonga actually did a good bit of PR - they bought those rights and gave the park its original name. They've got a very aggressive team. They'll seek out people who say positive things about them on Twitter and give them free shirts, etc. I'd say that there are still a number of people like me who remain disquieted by our club's association with a controversial company, but that number has dwindled or is dwindling.
LVS: Have you noticed a decrease in shirt sales?
RB: That's hard to say. Our home kit for 2013/14 hasn't been officially released yet. The only shirt available for purchase with the Wonga logo is next year's change kit, which has met with mixed reviews (as most change kits are). I would imagine that any decline in shirt purchases will be negligible.
LVS: Finally, do you believe that clubs should have an ethical compass when looking at sponsorship deals like this? What is the line that can't/shouldn't be crossed or is this just the direction that the business of football is moving in?
RB: I do. I guess I'm a romantic that way. Then again, it's hard to strive for consistency where this is concerned. Newcastle's shirt bore the Northern Rock name two sponsors ago, and it turns out they weren't saints, either.
If I'm Mike Ashley, it's hard to turn down a deal that's reportedly more lucrative than the previous one and also pays me to change my stadium's name back to the way it was. I know that's not a dynamic in play for Bolton, but I imagine it would have been difficult for Eddie Davies to turn money away as well. It's only fitting, as that's how these companies work.
Find the people (clubs) that are not in a position to say no to money and offer it to them. It only costs your soul.