Remembering Coca-Cola’s strange but brilliant ‘Win a Player’ competition

Nostalgia

Coca-Cola once gave fans the chance to win £250,000 for their club’s transfer budget. The strange promotion shaped Colin Kazim-Richards’ career.

For better or worse, Coca-Cola has a close relationship with football. From the Coke-jingle version of K’Naan’s ’Wavin Flag’ to years of the ‘Coca-Cola Cup’ in the 1990s, the soft drink giant follows football around like a sticky brown shadow.

It’s weird because neither you nor anybody you know has ever consumed Coca-Cola during a football match.

For the 2004-05 season, Coke took its relationship with English football to the next level by sponsoring the Football League (tiers 2-4 of the English football league system).

As part of the deal, Coca-Cola recreated its logo in the colours of all 72 Football League clubs, posting the image around newspapers, magazines and stadia. Despite its obvious commercial purpose, the image was a memorable one, defining the aesthetic of the Football League for several years.

Colours, however, were just the start of Coke’s masterly EFL plan.

Midway through the season, the fizzy drink company did something no sponsor had ever done before — a brilliant marketing ploy that saw fans buy into the brand far more than they had with Endsleigh or Nationwide.

Coca-Cola decided to stump up a wad of cash, £250,000, that fans could win by entering a competition.

But there was a twist: the prize money wouldn’t go to the fan, but to their chosen club’s transfer budget. Coke was giving fans the chance to ‘Win a Player’.

Win a Player

To celebrate their sponsorship of the Football League, Coca-Cola is offering football fans the chance to become a local hero by winning a player for their club. One prize winner will win £250,000 for their chosen football club to spend on player transfers and wages as well as a £10,000 cash prize for themselves.

For all the love we give Gary Linker and Walkers, the ‘Win a Player’ competition was simply one of the most engaging football tie-ins ever.

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READ: ‘Salt & Lineker’ and beyond: Football’s weird relationship with Walkers Crisps

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There aren’t many ways you can frame the act of buying Coke as beneficial to your local community, yet the company somehow did it: Coke — awful, tooth-melting Coke — became the generous benefactor ready to save your struggling League Two club from relegation.

“It is tapping into the way people feel passionate about their local team and having a say in how their club is run,” said Raf McDonnel, head of strategic marketing alliances at the UK arm of the company. “It puts fans at the heart of the decision-making process.”

The format was simple: over a three-month period toward the end of the season, fans could enter a draw for the ‘Win a Player’ contest. On the final day of the campaign, Coke would draw a winner from a hat, and that fan’s chosen club would win the £250,000.

Drawing individual fans from the hat (rather than clubs) meant that teams with more participating fans had a greater chance of winning, and this encouraged clubs to get their fans on board with the competition, in turn creating organic interest in the campaign and in Coke.

£250,000, after all, was a significant amount of money at any level of the league system. For those at the bottom end of the pyramid, it was absolutely massive.

Small details

That’s not to say that Coca-Cola’s ‘Win a Player’ competition wasn’t quite weird and sketchy.

Because while the contest offered a generous financial reward, Coke ultimately needed the money to be spent on a player — somebody it could parade around in Coke ribbons — in order to drum up the necessary publicity.

As such, clubs were told that the quarter of a million could not be spent on anything but players, regardless of the club’s financial situation.

Can the winning club spend the money on other purposes, i.e. debt?

No. The prize fund of £250,000 will only be released for player transfers and wages only.

What’s more, there were strict deadlines to adhere to.

Coke planned to announce the winner of the contest on May 30, 2005, during the Championship play-off final, but the deadline for spending the £250,000 was August 31, 2005, meaning the winning club had to offload its winnings that summer… regardless of whether a truly suitable opportunity presented itself.

Naturally, the contest also favoured clubs from larger towns and with larger fanbases. More fans meant more entries, which meant a higher chance of winning the grand prize.

Colin Kazim-Richards

After Coca-Cola received 1.1 million entries across 80 days, the 2004-05 ‘Win a Player’ contest was won by Aaron Berry, a Brighton & Hove Albion fan.

Then playing in the Championship, Brighton had just finished the season one point above the relegation zone, and their prize winnings gave them a chance to improve on that finish.

Their chosen means of doing so was 18-year-old Colin Kazim-Richards, who they signed from Bury on June 30 for the entire £250,000.

“Since it was announced that we had won the money, I had been determined that the money should be invested and not spent without any return,” said Brighton manager Mark McGhee.

“I think Colin represents exactly that: an investment. Colin is a player for the future of this club and hopefully we will benefit from this signing in the long term.”

Unfortunately, Brighton’s ice-cool winnings proved a poisoned chalice: Kazim-Richards — who would be dubbed the ‘Coca-Cola Kid’ for ever more — scored just six goals in 44 games as the club finished 24th and were relegated.

Bradley Wright-Phillips

The 2005-06 season wasn’t as bad for everyone as it was for Brighton. Fans had embraced the ‘Win a Player’ idea, and the contest was reprised for Coca-Cola’s second season as Football League sponsor.

This time there would be three winners: one club scooping the £250,000, and two others taking £50,000 each.

Again, fans encouraged one another to enter in order to have a better chance of scooping the grand prize, and by the end of the 2005-06 season, Leeds United topped the ‘table’ with 219,969 votes; Brentford, in second, had 138,372.

Despite having just 31,720 votes, it was Southampton who won the grand prize courtesy of 18-year-old fan Chantelle Legg. (Legg actually lived in Bournemouth, but her club allegiance prevented the possibility of ‘Cherry Coke’-related headlines.)

Southampton had just finished 12th in the Championship, and put their winnings toward the signing of Bradley Wright-Phillips — delighting manager George Burley and the competition winner herself.

“Today is a dream come true for me,” said Legg. “Thanks to Coca-Cola we’ve managed to sign a fantastic player who I’m sure will make a huge difference to our chances of success in the Championship next season. It’s amazing to think that I helped play a part in bringing Bradley to the Saints.”

And this time, unlike with Brighton, the winnings did put some fizz into Southampton’s season.

While Wright-Phillips found himself behind Grzegorz Rasiak and Kenwyne Jones in the pecking order, he still scored eight goals in 15 starts to take the club to a play-off spot.

Later years

From that season on, Coca-Cola would rejig its contest, changing the name from ‘Win a Player’ to ‘Buy a Player’.

Presumably succumbing to the demands of irate Leeds fans, this new format kept the £250,000 grand prize but also provided each Football League club with a small transfer kitty proportional to their number of fan votes, making the final draw slightly less climactic.

In February 2007, the top prize was won by a Hull City fan.

Coca-Cola ended its association with the Football League in 2010, but it’s innovative ‘Win a Player’ campaign certainly left its mark on English football.

Kazim-Richards has struggled to shed his ‘Coca-Cola Kid’ nickname in England, but both he and Wright-Phillips have enjoyed successful careers since their Coke-funded transfers.

Sold to Sheffield United at the end of the 2006 summer transfer window, Kazim-Richards has since played in Turkey, France, Greece, the Netherlands and Brazil.

He has appeared for both Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray, and has 37 caps and two goals for the Turkish national side.

Wright-Phillips’ post-Coke experiences have been no less remarkable.

After decent spells at Plymouth and Charlton, he moved to New York Red Bulls in 2013, where he has played alongside Thierry Henry, scored over 100 league goals and become one of the deadliest strikers in MLS history.

Who says Coca-Cola is bad for you?

By Benedict O’Neill


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