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Full Frontal Sponsorship

When FC Barcelona and Manchester United meet in the UEFA Champions League final on May 28, all eyes will be fixed on the players—and consequently on the fronts of their jerseys, which are some of the most expensive billboard real estate per inch in the advertising world.

Barcelona, after years of stubbornly refusing to tarnish its iconic shirts with sponsorship, recently caved. In December the Spanish champion announced a record deal with the Qatar Foundation. Despite being a nonprofit, the Qatari educational organization has enough spare cash to invest $204.5 million over five years to place its name on the Catalan team's jerseys starting next season.

English champion Manchester United was forced to scramble for a new partner during the global recession after original sponsor AIG received a government bailout. Chicago-based Aon stepped in, though as risk managers and reinsurers, it peddles a product the vast majority of the team's local fans neither know nor care about.

The size and global nature of these deals reflect the power of soccer clubs as the world's most recognizable brands. Broadcast ratings for the UEFA Champions League outstrip those for the Super Bowl and are rapidly growing in the lucrative markets of the Middle East and Asia.

American teams are struggling to play catch-up. Six of Major League Soccer's 18 teams currently lack a sponsor. Doug Quinn, president of FC Dallas, one of the teams hunting for a commercial partner, wittily captured the unique nature of the opportunity on offer: "MLS is the only sport where you can go to the White House and hold up a jersey with a corporate name on it."

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