9 November 2009 ~ Football clubs are herd animals. Once one gets an idea in their head, no matter how stupid, it can quickly become a stampede. This week the nervous twitching was caused by the notion that the biggest clubs in the country cannot get by without attaching the name of a sponsor to their stadium. Newcastle’s campaign to become the official laughing stock of European football took another bold step forward with the news that they now play at the sportsdirect.com@St James’ Park Stadium. Before the first 50,000 fans had signed internet protest petitions, Chelsea admitted they might be open to offers for naming rights to Stamford Bridge.
Then Liverpool boldly rated the value of their purported new stadium’s name at £250 million. Naming stadiums after sponsors is nothing new of course. Roughly half the clubs who have built grounds since the late 1980s have flicked idly through the football equivalent of baby name books before settling for Your-company’s-name-here Stadium. A few, such as Wigan and Huddersfield, have already changed it as a result. Of those clubs, Arsenal’s decision on their new stadium at Ashburton Grove aroused most controversy. One reason was their supposed reverence for tradition, which appeared to count for nothing. Another was the size of the club.
Few would begrudge a club such as Doncaster any money they could attract for naming rights, but the £100m Arsenal received from Emirates for a 15-year deal, which included eight years of shirt sponsorship, made the club look simultaneously greedy and petty. Working out at a few million pounds a season, it is small change compared with the revenue from a single successful Champions League season. Not only are the clubs selling a key part of their tradition and identity, they aren’t even getting much of a price. Chelsea’s mooted £150m may sound impressive but that could easily be eaten up by misplaced investments in two or three Andriy Shevchenkos over a decade.
Ron Gourlay, who seems to have achieved the impossible by making Peter Kenyon seem sympathetic, refers to the ‘‘upside’’ of the ‘‘new value’’ created in the club’s ‘‘sponsorship architecture’’. Liverpool’s enigmatic duo want to ‘‘partner with someone wanting global branding’’. This is the language of the high-stakes gamblers whose custody of the world economy has recently proved so successful, and aptly so. Because selling stadium names is no cold addition to a solid business but a desperate play by clubs that owe hundreds of millions of pounds.
Gourlay is sure Chelsea fans will appreciate the fact that they cannot let any other club gain a competitive advantage. Maybe so. But the curious name of the club’s ground (the bridge is thought to be that tiny hump in the road over what used to be a creek near the main entrance) is almost the only link left with its unusual early history. Perhaps at least some of them would appreciate that more.