Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Friday, 6 November 2009

The joy of naming rights

By Dan Bell
BBC News

Chelsea and Newcastle United are thinking about selling the naming rights to their stadiums. But why do fans get so upset about their hallowed ground having a corporate moniker?

Michael Owen is unveiled at St James' Park
Some names stick, others don't

How would you feel if your boss tried to re-name one of your children after the company website?

Well that's pretty much the reaction Newcastle United fans had when the man who owns their club re-named its stadium: sportsdirect.com @ St James' Park Stadium.

Even if you're not a Newcastle supporter, this is not an easy name to love - it's like a stone-cladding porch tacked onto the front of a stately home. For life-long fans, it is a travesty.

"At first when I heard it I couldn't believe it. To me he's just kicking the supporters in the teeth," says Joe Grey, who's a third-generation Newcastle fan. He is not alone.

But why does a simple name change - albeit an ugly one - provoke such an angry reaction? And why did corporate sponsors of other clubs, such Arsenal's Emirates and the Reebok stadium in Bolton, get away with it?

History/tradition

"The football club is about their history as the Geordie Nation," says Jim White, a sports writer with the Guardian.

"You don't support the board, you don't support the owner - some of the players get up your nose - you support something wider which is your community.

NAMING RIGHTS
Arsene Wenger at the Emirates
They stuck:
Emirates (Arsenal)
Reebok (Bolton)
Britannia (Stoke)
Ricoh Arena (Coventry)
They didn't stick:
The Friends Provident St Mary's Stadium (Southampton - name changed)
McCain Stadium (Scarborough - club folded)
JJB Stadium (Wigan - now the DW Stadium)

"The stadium is there permanently and people are very offended when you interfere with that.

"For him [the owner] to compromise that history and tradition by insulting the name of St. James' Park is ridiculous."

It seems that just as you should never dismiss a true football fan's grief at losing with the phrase "it's just a game", neither is the title of their stadium "just a name".

But Newcastle United is not alone in being lumbered with clumsy corporate branding, and at least its branding is for sports equipment.

What of York City fans and their less-than sporty sounding Kit Kat Crescent, or Hull City's elegantly titled Kingston Communications Stadium, usually shortened to "The KC", neither of which caused outrage?

Nor is corporate colonisation limited to football. The Oval, bastion of English cricket, is now "The Brit Oval", following a sponsorship deal with an insurance firm.

And compared with American sports, British sponsorship is the epitome of subtlety. American football has the Pizza Hut Park and who can suppress a smirk at the sound of Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado.

So why do some companies get away with it and others don't? According to Jonathan Gabay a branding expert with Brandforensics.co.uk, the problem is not so much how ugly or inappropriate the name is, but how long it has been there.

Women's match at Dick's Sporting Goods Park
Could Dick's Sporting Goods Park be the most ludicrously-named arena in the whole of sport?

"It all depends whether the brand is going to have meaning to the community," says Gabay. "The problem in Newcastle is that it didn't have any meaning. Why? It already had a strong meaning that meant to a lot of the fans.

"Parents were supporters, and their parents were supporters. It is in the blood. It is something I am inheriting from my parents who also supported this team, it is my kinship to the local community and also to the wider community."

But he says it's a different story if the brand is there from the beginning, having provided a brand new facility, rather than an interloper coming in and re-naming a much-loved institution.

White agrees. "If Arsenal had tried to change Highbury to the Emirates then people would have got very cheesed off. When you've got a new stadium you've got a blank canvas in a different way."

In fact, Gabay says there may even be bond formed between the sponsor and the fans because there is a sense of the brand and the community having built something together.

"If Emirates were ever to leave from there, I doubt they would ever do it, I bet you people would still refer to it as the old Emirates stadium," he says. One wonders if there are any fans now who refer to it as Ashburton Grove.

But unlike the Emirates and the Reebok, some namings of new stadiums do fail to catch. And the more cumbersome, the more likely they are to fail. When Southampton opened their new ground in 2001 it was lumbered with the moniker of The Friends Provident St Mary's Stadium. Many just called it St Mary's.

In the end, though, no brand can take away a club's history.

View of the famous Mes Que Un Club slogan at Barcelona's Nou Camp stadium
It would take a brave company to bid for the naming rights on this one

Joe Grey, 45, remembers the first time his dad took him to a match at St James' Park. It was an FA Cup tie, against Luton Town. Newcastle lost 2-1. He thinks it was either 1970 or 1971.

"I always remember going with my dad and getting off at Gateshead station and looking over the Tyne and seeing the stadium and it was just fantastic.

"It's history. It's been the home of the ground since 1892, well over 100 years. Whenever you think of Newcastle United you think of St James' Park."

And whatever the sign on the wall, it is the fans that chose what they call their own stadium, says the Sun's Ian McGarry.

"There's no way anyone in Newcastle or anywhere else in England, or in Europe for that matter, is going to call it the Sportsdirect.com."



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