A Football Stadium by Any Other Name

Man City's home, EastlandsEndorsing a stadium with a corporate name isn’t a new phenomenon. Back in 1912, John I. Taylor, owner of the Boston Red Sox gave the name Fenway Park to their home ground. He claimed it was due to the proximity of the stadium in the Fenway area of Boston. Others have suggested that the family business of Fenway Realty also gave an added incentive.

A businessman such as Taylor must have surely been aware of the commercial value of attaching his company to a successful sporting outfit.

A century later and the issue of ‘naming rights’ is at the fore of the business known as Premier League football. Manchester City have recently signed a deal with Etihad Airways, the chairman of which is Sheikh Hamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, half-brother of Sheikh Mansour.

As well as sponsoring the company’s shirt, the airline will now pay £10.2million per year for the next decade to have the stadium formerly known as Eastlands named after them.

This has caused much consternation in the corridors of City’s rivals. Arsene Wenger was the first to call the deal into question, citing the links between Mansour and Al Nahyan. Liverpool ’s commercial director Ian Ayre has also voiced concerns.

The general argument goes like this: Manchester City could never have commanded the amount of money for the naming rights (incidentally a similar amount to what Wenger’s Arsenal is receiving from their naming deal with Emirates) without the links between the two Sheikhs.

Perhaps this is true. After all, despite last season’s success City is still some way from eclipsing the likes of Liverpool in terms of name value.

The deal is being viewed by critics as the easiest way for City to side-step the ‘fair play rules’ being brought in by the governing bodies to force clubs to only spend what they have made, thus eliminating the ability of the so-called sugar daddies to transform a club from mediocrity to greatness.

For me the argument is a mute one (in much the same way as the argument of the ‘tapping up’ of players). By this I mean that everyone does it. Any club in City’s position would be doing exactly the same thing. Bolton Wanderers play at the Reebok stadium whilst both Liverpool and Chelsea have investigated selling the naming rights to their homes.

Wenger himself was happy to sell the rights for Arsenal’s new stadium. Having left behind one of the most iconic names in European football he realised the need for the income to support the club in the future. All of this is a born out of a need to compete.

Money is the lifeblood of modern football and those without it are destined to struggle for survival. The days of a club needing nothing more than a Brian Clough to inspire them to success are over. Now, they need higher ticket prices, Sky’s TV money and the windfalls of a top-four finish to have a realistic chance of battling for trophies. Their income in turn affects their ability to pay fees for, and wages to, the best players in the world.

Manchester United has been the best team in England for twenty years. And they have done this partly by paying high transfer fees and huge wages. Chelsea’s leap from nearly-men to contenders was only ignited by an oligarch’s spending spree, which brought in a top manager and gave him the funds to transform the club over a single summer. And, whilst the amounts were greatly inferior, Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League on the back of a huge investment by Jack Walker.

The greatest cost of sacrificing history and tradition for the corporate cash is that of football losing what remains of its soul. With the antics of players and the extortionate ticket prices to watch top-flight teams the sport has already haemorrhaged a lot of the affection people felt. Now, to see iconic homes such as White Hart Lane and Anfield possible being replaced with Americanized monikers like ‘M & T Bank Stadium’ and ‘Home Depot Centre’ would be another finger wrenched from the grip of nostalgia.

The cost of the naming rights to Manchester’s Commonwealth Games stadium is not the issue here. It is the cost on the clubs involved to maintain and fight their corner that is taking the biggest toll.

Read more of Alan Bradburne’s articles at This is Futbol