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. 

» 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 » 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.