Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Naming Rights and Wrongs

Today Newcastle United announced the ‘new name’ to be applied to St. James’ Park in the wake of less-than-popular owner Mike Ashley’s decision to take the club off the market and put the rights to the historic stadium’s name up for sale instead. Apparently more of a placeholder move than a permanent change – especially given that it is named for Ashley’s own chain of budget sports gear shops – for the remainder of the season Newcastle will be playing at The @ St. James’ Park Stadium. Hm.

There’s been a predictable amount of noise made about it – scoffs from the majority of football fans who see limitless comedy potential in the prospect of an already-maligned club lumbered with an unfashionable name for their once-untouchable and locally-treasured home; groans and resigned shrugs from the beleaguered ‘Geordie Nation’ who are long past being shocked at anything Ashley has to throw at them in terms of indignity; and of course platitudes from those in the team’s hierarchy who are adamant that this direction can only be a good thing for the club. The same has been said about Tottenham’s proposed new ground (which, based on the concept artwork, I like to call The Naming Rights Stadium).

To be honest, I’m inclined to side with the latter. I mean, the @ St. James’s Park Stadium’s not that bad is it? OK, so it’s far too wordy and impossible to fit into a catchy terrace chant and the @ sign in the middle is a cringingly dated lunge at sounding modern (much like the awful Stadium:MK where MK Dons ply their trade) – but the fans and TV pundits will still refer to it as St. James’ Park; it’s unlikely that the BBC in particular will spend much time reciting the URL for Ashley’s retailer in fear of giving ‘undue prominence’.

Newcastle fans can be consoled with the fact that it could be a lot worse. In America’s MLS, where, unlike in England, the commerce came a long time before the football, the fans take their seats at Pizza Hut Park (FC Dallas), The Home Depot Center (LA Galaxy) and – best of all – Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, home of the Colorado Rapids. Even York City’s KitKat Crescent has a certain assonant poetry to it.

The key to selling naming rights for stadiums, it seems, is choosing the right sponsor – and making sure it’s actually a good name. One example is Arsenal’s glittering Emirates stadium; probably the most pleasant place in the country to watch club football and oozing class and expense from every glass and concrete corner – and it has a name that rolls off the tongue; the sponsorship element of it is relatively easy to ignore.

When Arsenal first announced that they would be leaving Highbury for the Gulf airline-sponsored Emirates, there were groups of fans who were incensed, declaring that they would refer to the stadium as Ashburton Grove and never, ever, by its corporate name. Three years down the line and you’d be hard pushed to find an Arsenal fan that had a problem with playing at the Emirates (apart, perhaps, from the fact that they haven’t won anything since moving there!)

It seems odd, especially nowadays, for fans to complain about naming rights being sold for their teams’ stadiums anyway. For a long time now football clubs have been adorned with advertising: corporate logos and companies names are key parts of the iconography of football – indeed, in the case of shirt sponsorship, they are literally part of the fabric of modern football. Is it really violating the sanctity of a football club to step up from having every single player wear a logo on his chest, every member of backroom staff wear a branded jacket and hundreds of metres of advertising hoardings all around the pitch to playing in a branded stadium?

In a previous blog post, Modern Football is Brilliant, I argued that football today, particularly in the Premier League, is as exciting and infinitely watchable as it is because of the increased money and ‘commercialisation’, rather than in spite of it. For me, this also applies to shirt sponsorship’s effect on the look and, yes, feel of the game today.

Looking back through photographs from the last 20 years or so of football history, the most notable differences are usually in what the players are wearing (and occasionally the haircuts). The history of the Premier League, for example, can be divided into eras based on shirt sponsorship: for example there was the Sharp-era Manchester United of the 1990s, in which they won their historic treble in 1999, which gave way to the Vodafone-era United of the 2000s. So many fans I’ve spoken to will fondly remember their favourite shirts, whether it’s JVC Arsenal, Sega Arsenal or O2 Arsenal; Autoglass Chelsea, Fly Emirates Chelsea (and how incongruous that sounds even a couple of years later, such is the airline’s association with their North London rivals); and how odd will Liverpool shirts look without Carlsberg emblazoned across the front from next season? And will it herald a significant new era for them?

Perhaps this is just me being sentimental as usual – but what is true is that corporate involvement with football is certainly not always some terrible, cynical, money-spinning venture. Often, especially in the lower leagues, local businesses sponsor football clubs who are as much a part of the community as the clubs themselves and form a genuinely symbiotic relationship. Without the sponsorship of local businesses, it is likely many League One and Two clubs would struggle to survive. Is it any wonder that more and more of them sell off their naming rights too? There are always criticisms that teams have sold out or betrayed their long histories by making this sort of move – but when the choice is either changing the name of the stadium or even the club (as many teams all over Europe have – see Wales’ TNS between 1997 and 2006 and FC Red Bull Salzburg, once SV Austria Salzburg) – or ceasing to exist, surely it’s better that a historic club survives in some form?

Football is kept alive by advertising and sponsorship – and is all the stronger for it. It is the reason that England can still sustain 92 league clubs, many of whom are well over 100 years old, despite falling attendances and an overwhelming focus on the top few in the media. So while it’s sometimes funny (I remember as a child when we used to laugh at local team Rochdale because they were sponsored by Carcraft, the local Skoda dealership – could any other sponsor exude less glamour?) sponsorship is a major part of the lifeblood of the sport – and makes for some of the most enduring images of recent football history.

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