The Name Game

If most football fans were asked if they’d like a multi-national company to pump £100m into their club they’d jump at the chance.  Tell them that in return their historic ground, which has been home to their club for over 100 years, would have its name changed to reflect their new backers and suddenly the atmosphere would change.

For it seems that football fans will accept almost any commercial activity surrounding their club except the selling of naming rights. And even during one of the deepest recessions in generation this attitude still prevails, although some change does seem to be on the horizon.  The most recent example of a club getting into hot water over naming rights was at Newcaslte where, perhaps understandably, fans were riled on being told their ground was now to be called Sports Direct@St James’ Park – it hardly rolls off the tongue.  It’s also unlikely it would have secured much more income for the Magpies as Sports Direct is the company owned by club owner – and PR disaster – Mike Ashley.

Another owner of similar standing to Ashley among his fans, Malcolm Glazer, has also been reported to be considering selling the naming rights at Old Trafford.  In a business sense, for a club a reported £700m+ in debt to try and claw back some money it makes sense. But to fans it’s just the latest example of the way Glazer and his family are slowly killing the club and all its traditions.

But naming rights can work and are accepted by fans. Think The Emirates, The Reebok Stadium, the Ricoh Arena as just some examples of  clubs who play at branded stadiums.  The difference? The grounds have been built over the last decade or so and therefore have no history or heritage.  Arsenal’s deal with Emirates was reportedly worth over £100m which for a club who, unlike many, like to keep their finances on an even keel was a godsend.

Some Arsenal die-hards continue to call the ground Ashburton Grove, but in the media, where it really matters for the sponsor, the Emirates name has stuck.  Perhaps the secret is not to give fans any alternative options. When Southampton’s new ground opened, it was originally called the Friends Provident St Marys Stadium.  A bit of a mouthful, the obvious thing was to cut out the sponsors name so St Mary’s stuck and Friends Provident probably asked for a refund from the Saints marketing department.

The next battle in the name game could come on Merseyside where Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have announced that they will sell the naming rights of Liverpool’s new stadium in Stanley Park once (or is that if) it is built.  Again, perhaps because the owners are already mistrusted by the majority of fans, at first the plan was criticised by Reds fans who said they would call it Stanley Park or the New Anfield.

But then an interesting debate took place between supporters who, maybe having spent a day thinking about things, came to realise that at this moment in their history money is more important.  As one fan on a messageboard put it: “I’d rather see Torres and Gerrard playing at the Budweiser Stadium, than see Ngog and Lucas playing at the New Anfield”.  And that attitude does seem to be catching on. When Tottenham announced plans for their new ground over the road from White Hart Lane little fuss was kicked up when fans were told naming rights were up for grabs.

Supporting a football club is as much about knowing its history as it is about knowing who your best left-back currently is.  But the reality of the football business today means clubs always need to find new revenue streams and if it is done the right way and at the right time many fans can now see the financial advantage of selling naming rights.

They might not like it, but when their £20m centre forward scores the winning goal in the Champions League final, they probably won’t care.

About author

Mark Segal
Mark Segal 7 posts

Mark is a journalist and online editor at ITV.com with over 10 years experience working for national media outlets. Recently wrote for FC Business Magazine on twitter in sport. You can follow him on @segalmark

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