Considering the whole multitude of commercial shtick and financial immorality that surrounds the beautiful game in its current modern guise, you’d imagine it’d take something special to top the list of supporters’ most despised concepts. And while there is much to complain about in today’s footballing landscape, there are not many things that appear to wind fans up more than the notion of naming rights.
Naming rights seem to stand out as something of a depressing motif for the sport’s shift away from the common football fan in this country. Sky high-ticket prices, sterilised atmospheres, prawn sandwiches etc. You get the idea.
As the 21st century, Sky-fuelled commercial juggernaut that is the Premier League continues to drive the game further away from the traditional supporter, for many, the commercialisation of English football has gone one invasive step too far with the introduction of naming rights.
The notion of selling the naming rights of stadia and arenas isn’t of course an entirely alien concept, not outside of English football anyway. In the United States, the practice can be tracked back to as early as the mid-1920’s and in Australia, Canada and Japan, few will bat an eyelid at a blue chip company draping their name upon a sporting arena.
Within the United Kingdom, while stadia that’s not been utilised for football (e.g. The O2 Arena, Metro Radio Arena, Motorpoint Arena) have often sought out sponsorship as a way of raising extra revenue, football stadia in this country have traditionally been somewhat out-of-bounds for companies looking to put their name to something.
While the concept of naming rights in terms of building new stadia has been tepidly accepted by supporters, it’s the renaming of our historic grounds that really strikes a universal chord with fans.
When Bolton Wanderers left Burnden Park in 1997, the news that their new ground was to be dubbed the Reebok Stadium, was greeted with universal disdain by many. Although after several years, opposition softened. After all, Reebok are (or were) a local company, it provided a further, well-needed source of income and there was eventually even a Nat Lofthouse stand.
Furthermore, Huddersfield fans were well aware the role naming their new ground the Alfred McAlpine Stadium had to play in the payment of the ground in 1994 and more recently, Arsenal fans were realistic as to why they moved from Highbury into a stadium named after an Arabian airline.
Yet when Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley decided to re-brand St. James’ Park the ‘Sports Direct Arena’, he was subsequently mauled by fans and media alike. Considering the protests culminated in an early day motion in Parliament, you get the idea as to quite how well this sat with supporters.
The popular belief is of course, that the re-branding of our existing football stadia is simply another nail in the coffin of the history and tradition that surrounds our clubs. Fans maintain an attachment in both emotional and financial terms with football clubs that is in a stark cultural contrast to the supporting demographics of many American sports teams. English football clubs aren’t a franchise, hence why should they be treated like one?
From the rivalries our clubs participate in, to the silverware that they all strive to attain, history plays a starring role in almost every medium. And football grounds are as central to that history and tradition as anything else in the game. It is a club’s beating heart, the focal point in both physical and figurative means for supporters; it’s so much more than just a bricks and mortar presence.
Naturally, this notion that some company with no affiliation with the club can simply plaster their name over something they care little more for bar financial gain, triggers an extremely emotive response. And in an ideal world, naming rights wouldn’t exist at all. But this isn’t an ideal world and the begrudging truth is that it’s likely to become an increasingly common practice across English football. But is it really worth the commotion that many attribute to it?
The name of our league competitions, from the very top tier of English football to the non-professional ones, are preceded by the name of a company. The most historic association football tournament in the world in the FA Cup, has been sponsored since 1994. The very shirts that carry the badges of the clubs of which we adore, compete for space with the names of both a kit manufacturer and a corporate sponsor.
Yes, the ground of a football club may be the holiest element of all, but the fact is from the competitions our clubs play in and the shirts that our players wear to the programmes we buy on matchday, all accommodate corporate sponsorship. Even many of the stands that make up the very stadia that we sit in, are renamed after the companies that sponsor them.
This isn’t serving to defend clubs who choose to rename their historic homes. But the fact is that English football is already so steeped in commercialisation, that naming rights is unfortunately an inevitable step. The most important thing however, isn’t what a stadium’s name is up on a website or on the back of a brochure. It’s what it matters to you.
Although the deal has since been revoked, would Newcastle fans ever refer to a day out at the Sports Direct Arena? Of course not. Be it St. James’ Park, White Hart Lane or Old Trafford, clubs can rename them what they like, but it’s not going to make an ounce of difference to those who frequent those grounds. And that’s what matters most.
If someone from a far flung corner in the world wants to refer to one of our sacred stadia by a naming rights alias, then let them do it. As long as the season ticket holder of 30 odd years doesn’t start doing it, (likely scenario, no?) English football can deal with the next wave of commercialisation. Besides, when was the last time someone called the Gallowgate the Newcastle Brown Ale Stand?