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What's In a Name?

By Patrick Kavanagh, Head of Sponsorship and Experiential Marketing

November 16, 2011 | 7 min read

This old stadium sponsorship chestnut is rearing its ugly head again. 119 years ago a football ground was built to accommodate a burgeoning new football club; this club was Newcastle United. Though I wasn’t there, I’m sure it was an interesting time in the city, there was probably great excitement and anticipation. As we fast forward to 2011, the football ground still exists situated in the same place in the centre of the city, almost like a cathedral. One key point that needs to be made is that the current incarnation of St. James’ Park looks very little like that original stadium.

St. James' Park

Fighting Change

As Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias unfurled their plans late last week to sell the naming rights to St. James’ Park, the fans of Newcastle United immediately responded with typical indignation. There were suggestions that this should only happen if it were a new ground, and they point to the aforementioned 119 years of history. Every possible media channel was buzzing with Toon Army fans expressing, in at times the most violent way, that the renaming of their historical ground is a disgrace. The vitriol that has been streaming out of the North East and beyond is tough to ignore, though this time I think it should be ignored.

The game of football, and the world in general, has changed tremendously since the year 1892. Since 1892 we have had innovations such as the automobile and the airplane, we have sound in our motion pictures and most importantly (for football anyway) we now have TV. Because of TV, football clubs around the world are now multi-million pound organisations with global appeal. Player wage packets bulge in a way that those players of yesteryear could never imagine. What am I saying here? Things have changed a lot since 1892, and they will continue to change. If Newcastle United falls behind any further, then there may be no chance of recovery. No chance for a trophy. No chance to compete. And isn’t that the most fundamental purpose for any sporting organization across the globe?

Timing

Some question the timing of the announcement to change the name of St. James’ Park; the club is in dizzying heights at the moment, nestled comfortably in third place in the ‘Barclays’ Premier League. [Even America doesn’t sponsor their historical/professional leagues] The timing was actually quite shrewd if you consider the details. Yes the club is in third and about to embark on its toughest run of fixtures, but there is also an international break and their next two games are on the road. This provides enough time for the exceptionally loyal fans of Newcastle United to get their feeling off their chests. To fill forums and social media sites with dissention. By the time the team are back playing in St. James’, there will far less dissention.

Additionally, let’s consider the timing of the announcement from a long-term strategic angle. Newcastle United have for a period of time now had Northern Rock on the front of their shirts, and as most people know, this sponsorship will end at the completion of this season. And considering the fact that Northern Rock has been nationalised by the British Government this is not soon enough. With respect to the kit sponsor Puma, this was a two year deal that will also be completed at season’s end. Consider this from a financial standpoint. Not only are the club selling the stadium naming rights, but they will also be able to offer the kit supplier contract and the front of the shirt. This is a tidy package for a large sporting brand. And this may be why the first name to emerge is Nike. This may be a strong entry point into European football for a brand that is being outclassed by Adidas in the world of football.

Reaction

The most interesting reaction to this news was the reaction of the media. Generally known for stirring up controversy to sell a couple of extra papers or to get a few more clicks, this was a brilliant opportunity. This was an opportunity to create new strife for those over-achieving Geordies. I waited a few days to write this post as I wanted to see what the reaction would be, and I wasn’t surprised by the result.

Jeff Stelling, the revered Sky Soccer Saturday pundit had this to say; “The hideous decision to rename Newcastle’s ground has well and truly got my goat!” He went on to suggest, "Although the caption on Soccer Saturday will refer to whatever the stadium’s official name now is, I for one will do my utmost to call St James’ Park just that.” What Jeff is doing here is pandering to the British football public whilst showing a serious lack of journalistic professionalism.

Most interestingly, Mr. Stelling shows incredible sports ignorance when he suggested, "Newcastle say the rebranding gives them the chance to show future investors what they could get for their money, which in itself could lead to the farcical situation where the stadium is renamed every couple of years.” And he continued to flaunt his tremendous lack of sponsorship knowledge with this nugget; "But if I was a potential sponsor, I’d be wondering what I’ll get back for my money and the answer I’m sure is ‘not much’.”

What Jeff fails to realise is that many sponsorship deals of this type are generally very long-term deals, and with the appropriate amount of activation this can prove to be a global boon for an organisation looking to tap into the European and global football markets.

The person who jumped into the fray that interested me the most was Freddy Shepherd when he suggested, "Fans in Newcastle, like myself, will always call it St James' Park anyway so anyone claiming the rights, it's not going to do them much good because it's always going to be called St James'." The interesting part of that statement is “Fans in Newcastle, like myself”. It’s quite clear that Freddy has forgotten how he left the club in crippling debt whilst completely slagging the Geordie public. But when looking for supporting hyperbole, some fans can quickly forget.

The Future

As football in England begrudgingly accepts modernity, these are the types of changes fans must get used to. Chelsea is next on the list as multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich has recently been looking for ways to garner extra income from his investment. As the attempt to build a new stadium has been fraught with roadblocks it is inevitable that he moves to stadium sponsorship to bridge the gap.

There are currently quite a few stadiums in the nPower Football League and the Barclays Premier League that have sponsorship, and though some make a mockery of this, in the long term that list will grow. Football ground sponsorship is here to stay, and the clubs that jump on the bandwagon first will benefit a great deal. Welcome to your future, football; sport is business.

This is where I place the caveat that I’m a massive Newcastle supporter and have been since I was quite young. In this case I’m looking at this from a purely business perspective. Like every fan, I want trophies, and I’d be willing to give up quite a bit to see Newcastle win a trophy in my lifetime.

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