News broke late on Wednesday afternoon that Virgin Money, the banking branch of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group empire, was set to become Newcastle United’s next shirt sponsor.
Virgin Money chief executive Jayne-Anne Gadhia – a Manchester United fan, as it happens – had this to say before she watched her team go down 3-0:
“Now that Virgin Money and Northern Rock are ‘united’ as one business, it gives us great pleasure to continue the shirt sponsorship of Newcastle United Football Club. The Northern Rock sponsorship started in 2003 and it is an important link to the North-East which we are pleased to continue. Combined with our sponsorship of the Virgin London Marathon and the Edinburgh Festival ‘Fringe on the high street’, the shirt sponsorship of Newcastle United Football Club embeds our involvement in the communities we serve.”
How long this deal was in the making, we can’t really be sure, but as soon as the T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted the club didn’t hang about. A two and a half year sponsorship deal was confirmed and the lads trotted out in front of a sold out St. James’ with the Virgin Money logo ironed over the spot Northern Rock had occupied for the best part of eight years.
The first thing that came to my head upon hearing the news was Virgin = red and white, an unthinkable colour scheme for an NUFC kit for obvious reasons. The aesthetics of the new logo were soon forgotten however, and by the time Phil Jones nodded meekly into his own net to seal a fantastic win over the champions, nobody was talking about Virgin.
Except for me. Perhaps I was allowing myself to be carried away by the euphoria of the evening, but I got to thinking about the man behind the logo. Virgin Group chairman Sir Richard Branson is, put simply, no mug. He started his first business – a magazine named ‘Student’ – when he was just 15 years of age. Since then, Branson has founded, built, bought, and sold, and his Virgin Group is today made up of over 400 companies.
Not too shabby, but is he a sports fan?
In 1996, Branson became the majority shareholder of the London Broncos Rugby League team, bringing with him a wealth of business experience and a new lease of life for the struggling club. In his three years in charge, Branson’s team managed a second placed league finish and played their way to a Challenge Cup final at Wembley Stadium. Despite this, attendances were moderate at best, and when they began to dwindle so did the Virgin Group’s interest in the sport. Branson sold the club to avid supporter John Hughes in 1999.
Fast forward to 2010, and Branson has decided to take another stab at the sport thing (if you can really class Formula 1 as a sport – it’s all about the fastest car, isn’t it?). Virgin Racing was founded, though the immediate impact was nothing like that which Branson experienced with his rugby league team and it was sold not long after, leaving with nothing except a rather unattractive record – the most starts (38) without having scored a single point.
But rugby is rugby, and racing is racing. Both have their fans, and I guess they can both be entertaining at times. Still, here in England they’ll be forever in the shadow of the beautiful game, both financially and in terms of interest, and Richard Branson must know this.
Is it possible that shirt sponsorship is only the beginning? After all, Llambias has said on more than one occasion that the shirt deal may well incorporate the stadium naming rights. The Virgin Money Arena? It could happen, and it may not be such a bad thing, if it brings Branson closer to the club. The fourth richest man in the country, a billionaire four times over – could he be the one to relieve Mike Ashley of the burden he purchased from Freddy Shepherd? As soon as Ashley breaks even, he’ll be looking for a buyer, and it may be that he won’t have to look very far.
Give Branson a taste of the passion that surrounds his new investment, and he might just get hooked.