Business deal distances club from community
15 July ~ Oldham Athletic has agreed a five-year sponsorship deal with the sports goods retailer Sports Direct. The deal, reported to be worth £1 million in total, includes renaming Boundary Park as SportsDirect.com Park. The deal also involves shirt sponsorship, a change in kit manufacturer and Sports Direct taking over the club's merchandising. In one sense there is nothing remarkable about the deal. There are 30 clubs that have sold stadium naming rights, and eight of those are, like Latics, in League One.
Only one other club has to suffer the indignity of having the .com suffix as part of its stadium name. The reaction from fans has in the main been to welcome the money, while continuing to call the ground Boundary Park. It's a combination of realism and pragmatism. In many ways I have the same view.
Yet, it's my willingness, alongside the majority of fans, to take that view that makes me hesitate. The business case is clear: the club lose money every year and the occasional cup run or player sale offers only temporary relief. The club are keen to present the deal as part of its progression alongside the construction of a new stand (reportedly £2m over budget and with no fixed completion date). It is hard to argue with the logic. The renaming of the ground is presented as an unambiguously good thing – renaming is better than relocating is the club's line. Any objection is cast on fan sites in pejorative terms as "traditionalism".
The loss of a name, good enough for the last 118 years, feels like another small erosion of football's attachment to the local area, another distancing from the club's past. The stadium will be SportsDirect.com Park for the next five years, but what then? At the same time the new sponsor leads the business pages of the press with an eventually unsuccessful shareholder revolt over new bonus arrangements for its 3,000 permanent staff, including major shareholder and founder Mike Ashley. The controversial scheme was passed at the company's fourth attempt and will payout an estimated £180m in shares if profits double by 2019. The proportion going to Ashley has not been announced, but an earlier version would potentially have delivered £70m. Sports Direct employs around 23,000 people with a reported 90 per cent on zero hours contracts who will not benefit.
As a fan I've already bought my season ticket and I will doubtless shrug my shoulders and celebrate the additional income for the club and continue to call the ground Boundary Park. But there is a part of me that says it's not "traditionalist" to lament the loss of a name, ungrateful to question the employment practices of the sponsor or to think that all of this further chips away at the morality of the game, its history and traditions. And if all else fails, at least it's not Wonga. Brian Simpson