With Banks as Main Sponsors, Soccer Teams Could Feel Crisis

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 9, 2008

LONDON, Oct. 8 -- Tony Frederick doesn't have any money in the bank. He's "not one for savin'," explained the upbeat east London building contractor.

So Frederick, 50, thought he would escape the British banking crisis. But then he realized that banks are major sponsors of England's biggest soccer teams. Football, as it is known here, is a national obsession and Frederick's passion.

"Now if this crisis touches football -- that is what you call a problem," he said.

In other words, a crisis is really a crisis if it messes with the neighborhood team, the Hammers -- West Ham United, adored by legions of fans in his part of east London. And it is beginning to.

Several weeks ago, the team's shirt sponsor, a travel company called XL, went bankrupt, causing the team to play with shirts bearing a white patch and the players' numbers replacing the company name.

This week came the big news that the club's owner, Björgólfur Gudmundsson, had suffered a financial setback -- the Icelandic bank in which he holds a major stake, Landsbanki, had been taken over by the government.

The crisis is drawing close to other teams, too. Northern Rock, a bank that was nationalized early this year, is the sponsor of Newcastle United; few people expect that to continue.

Liverpool officials have announced that the credit crunch is delaying a new stadium. And Manchester United's shirts bear the logo of its sponsor, the insurance giant AIG that was just rescued from bankruptcy by a massive U.S. government bailout. Some joke that "AIG" will have to be erased from the team shirts and replaced with "US FED."

In the east London neighborhood where Frederick works, the Hammers are the subject of the same kind of obsessive love that Washington feels for the Redskins -- at least on the weekends when they win.

On a blog called West Ham Till I Die, one fan wrote: "Billions are being wiped off the value of the stocks. Perhaps football is imploding before our very eyes."

Dean Cole, 41, who runs a fruit stand, said he was quite happy to learn about West Ham's ties to the troubled Icelandic bank -- because he supports the rival Arsenal team.

"Family is the most important thing in life; football is the second," he said, adding that his team was "on sound financial footing."

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