Soon there won’t be much left to sell. When the best silver, choice furniture and family heirlooms have all been flogged off, it will be time to strip the place of it’s copper piping to flog to the scrap metal man. First though, »naming rights«, a hot topic this week in the commercial pressure cooker of the Premier League, can be auctioned to the highest bidder.
In the last ten days or so Chelsea, Tottenham, Newcastle (ex-Premier League shall we say) and Liverpool have all vocalised their desire to sell naming rights to their current or future homes in order to raise millions of pounds (Chelsea for example predict a £10 million windfall each season). It would be nothing new in the Premier League, several clubs have already gone down that road, not least Arsenal who sold the naming rights to their new home at Ashburton Grove to the Emirates airline to help fund construction costs. But the sudden glut of clubs deciding to leverage their stadium names for a bag of gold has caught the eye.
»sportsdirect.com@St James’ Park Stadium«?
It is certainly a confusing issue. Liverpool and Tottenham are in a similar situation to Arsenal, in that they want to sell naming rights to fund ambitious and expensive new stadiums – a rationale that I assume is more acceptable to fans than changing the historical name of an existing stadium. Liverpool fans may also grudgingly accept that any way of significantly reducing the debts heaped onto the club by their American owners’ leveraged buyout is a necessary evil. Chelsea’s drive for new revenue seems logical given the noises they’ve made in the past about weaning themselves from Roman Ambramovich’s generous teet. But will fans see the proposal in such dispassionate economic terms? If they are made to suffer like Newcastle fans, then probably not: the club’s controversial owner Mike Ashley has just pulled in several million pounds by allowing St James’ Park to be called the »sportsdirect.com@St James’ Park Stadium« until the end of the season. What a car crash of a name!
One issue this raises is, how many buyers of such lavish sponsorship are there out there at the moment? Tottenham’s Executive Director Paul Barber was bullish about the club’s prospects and said: »We’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East and Far East where there are so many brands emerging. Not as famous as perhaps their competitors in Europe and the States but looking for ways of making themselves famous very quickly.« The opportunities apparently are many.
I can’t make up my mind how damaging this rush to sell off naming rights will be to football’s DNA. It’s incredible how quickly and easily you start calling a place by it’s sponsored name, how it starts to roll off the tongue and how you are soon advertising a brand with every mention of the place without even thinking about. It reminds me a little of the research that suggests young children watching TV can’t tell the difference between adverts and real programmes. Perhaps us football fans will regress to a similar state as the game becomes more and more saturated with marketing messages?
At the same time, the marketability of football is a function not just of what happens on the pitch for 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon, but of texture, tradition and identity – what makes football clubs really »clubs« rather than American »franchises«. The word »club« suggests some community of interests, a pulling together not just of people, but of social and historical strands. How much can you erode that before you damage the brand you’re trying to sell?
In Germany, a glance at the names of Bundesliga grounds seems to suggest that the debate here has been settled. A dozen grounds now bear sponsors’ names. Was this a contentious issue? Or did German fans accept the need to cash in on stadium naming rights, when the much-loved 50+1 rule prevents full-blown sugar daddy ownership? I would be interested to hear your views on the question.