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Jul 30, 2013

If the price is right

Now that our version of the Community Shield has been staged, the 2013-14 season is officially underway in Germany. It could be a historic one, because there's a chance we'll be treated to a spectacle we haven't seen since the early 80s - a team wearing shirts without the logo of a sponsor.

Bayer Leverkusen have so far been unsuccessful in finding a partner they are happy with and will consider taking to the field in plain shirts, just like in the old days. CEO Wolfgang Holzhauser says: "If the price isn't right, we'll play without sponsored shirts. We can afford to."

It's not without irony that one of only two teams in all of Germany that is owned by a company is considering snubbing this particular form of commercialism. Of course, Bayer haven't suddenly rediscovered their purist ideals, it's rather a case of once bitten, twice shy.

In August 2007, just two days before their first league game of the new season, Bayer signed a contract with TelDaFax, a multi-industry company best known for its telecommunications branch, that earned the club about €6 million per year. Four years later, TelDaFax went bankrupt, owing no less than 750,000 customers and business partners money or services.

Bayer were smart enough to cancel their contract with TelDaFax before the company went belly-up, but the bankruptcy still causes them headaches. The company's insolvency administrator has sued Bayer for €16 million, claiming that the club kept receiving money from TelDaFax even though it was aware of the company's severe financial problems. (Which, as strange as it may sound, is indeed unlawful.)

In August 2011, again only two days before their first Bundesliga game, Bayer found a new shirt sponsor to replace TelDaFax, the Californian solar energy corporation SunPower. The parties signed a contract for three years that reportedly earned Bayer €6.5 million per year. However, last October SunPower suddenly decided to cut back on their involvement in Europe and cancelled the sponsorship deal a year before it was about to expire.

Hence Bayer's intention to find a solid, stable partner and their announcement to consider not having a sponsor at all. It remains to be seen how serious they are about this. Back in 2011, Holzhauser had already gotten permission from the league to wear shirts that said "Werkself" (company XI – Leverkusen's nickname) before unveiling SunPower at the last moment, so he knows how to bluff at the bargaining table to get the best deal.

But if Bayer should see it through, this would be the most fitting year to do it. The club that pioneered shirt sponsorship, Eintracht Braunschweig, has finally been promoted back to the Bundesliga. And a few months ago, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the day shirt sponsorship came to the league. (The whole story is here)

In those 40 years, we've seen almost everything on players's shirts, including quite a few products you wouldn't expect athletes to endorse, say tobacco or hard liquor or horror. Yes, horror. When second-division Waldhof Mannheim played Bayern Munich in the German FA Cup's round of 16 on December 1, 1999, their shirts read: Blair Witch Project. (Six years later, in August 2005, Sachsen Leipzig played Dynamo Dresden, also in the cup, in white shirts that said "Mr. & Mrs. Smith", referring to the truly explosive action comedy that launched Brangelina.)

Cigarettes reached the Bundesliga thanks to Borussia Dortmund. Their first-ever shirt sponsor, in 1976, was Samson, a Dutch company that produced rolling tobacco (Dortmund even changed their club crest to incorporate Samson's logo, a lion). I'm not aware of another football club, German or otherwise, that has ever endorsed cigarettes. Real cigarettes, I should add, because in June, Birmingham City signed a sponsorship deal with a producer of electronic cigarettes. Nicotine, it seems, is taboo. In the mid-80s, the shirts of West Bromwich Albion even carried a no-smoking symbol.

Hard liquor, though, seems to be just about acceptable. In 1990, Scarborough FC were told they could not wear shirts that endorsed Black Death Vodka, but I guess the main reason for the ban was the dripping-blood font, not the drink.

Because St. Pauli's shirt sponsor in 1999 was Jack Daniels, Kaiserslautern endorsed the famous Italian liqueur Campari in the late 70s and of course Eintracht Braunschweig's Jagermeister shirt was what started it all back in 1973.

An unusual debate about shirt sponsors was waged a year ago, when Werder Bremen announced they were in talks with Wiesenhof, who call themselves "a major player in the European poultry business". PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has long since been extremely critical of Wiesenhof's business methods.

That was why fans pleaded with Werder to not sign the contract and Jurgen Trittin - Germany's former Federal Minister for the Environment and a Werder fan since his boyhood - even stepped down from an official post he'd held at the club to protest the deal. All to no avail.

Still, in the bigger scheme of things, the Wiesenhof controversy was a fairly low-key dispute in terms of what is allowed on shirts and what is not. In fact, if we disregard the original Jagermeister rumpus, the one which begot this whole sponsorship thing 40 years ago, only one of the three most famous scandals happened in football.

The first concerned team handball, which is very popular in Germany. In June 1979, the Flensburg club was promoted to the Bundesliga and needed a bigger budget. So they accepted a shirt-sponsorship offer from a local entrepreneur, Beate Uhse. The problem was the nature of Uhse's business. In 1962, she had opened the world's first sex shop and her company would eventually be the world leader in sales of sexual aids.

Perhaps the 70s were a less prudish era, but apart from the usual banter, being labelled "Beate's Boys" and going down at the end of the season, Flensburg's handballers didn't encounter too many problems. However, when they tried the same thing a quarter of a century later, the reaction was very different. In 2003, Flensburg signed another sponsorship deal with Beate Uhse, but this time there were protests and the club eventually cancelled the contract.

During the 1987-88 season, the first real shirt controversy reached the Bundesliga. As the league went into the winter break, Homburg FC still hadn't found a shirt sponsor and the cash-strapped club's president Manfred Ommer was so desperate that he was willing to sign a deal with, well, almost anyone.

In early 1988, the London Rubber Company - despite the name, a German company based in Monchengladbach - offered him 200,000 German Marks. Ommer accepted and on March 12, 1988, Homburg's team, led by captain and future US international Tom Dooley, took to the field away at Hamburg in shirts that said "London".

The problem was the product. The London Rubber Company manufactured condoms. Even though these were the years of the AIDS scare, the German FA (DFB) had denied Homburg permission for this endorsement – on the grounds that it was "unethical" – and the club could wear the shirts only because Ommer had won an injunction in court against the league's ruling. Then something unexpected happened. Homburg, the worst team in the league, began to play football. In late March, the team won away at Frankfurt and then beat Cologne at home, all in those notorious London shirts.

But on April 21, the Frankfurt district court repealed the injunction Ommer had been granted, basically saying that the DFB had the right to enforce restrictions with regard to sponsorship deals. Two days later, against Schalke, the Homburg players wore shirts on which the London logo was covered with black tape. They continued this custom until the end of the season and deep into the next.

They played the next season in the second division, having been relegated despite the brave fight the team had put up since the beginning of the shirt controversy. The DFB fined the club 100,000 Marks for having played six games with the forbidden logo. The quarrel raged on until early 1989.

Then, after more than eight months of playing with black tape across their chests, the players were finally allowed to endorse London. They did so until the summer of 1990 without any further ado. Then Homburg signed a new sponsorship deal – with DETAG, an investment company owned by Manfred Ommer.

Still, all this pales in comparison to the most bizarre sponsorship story in German sports history. In late 1987, Heinz Weifenbach, the president of the ice-hockey club ECD Iserlohn, returned from a business trip to Libya and announced he'd struck a sensational deal. Iserlohn would receive 1.5 million Marks for endorsing Muammar Gaddafi's "Green Book", in which the leader/dictator laid out his philosophy of politics, on their shirts.

It sounded like a joke, but on December 4, the team took to the ice against Rosenheim in shirts that displayed the German cover of the Green Book. Politicians were aghast and the league hurried to threaten Iserlohn with expulsion. The club returned to their old shirts - and went bankrupt on December 11, just a few weeks before Ommer struck his legendary deal with the London Rubber Company.

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