Named and shamed

As Arsenal announce that they are calling their new home after a rival's current sponsors, Neville Hadsley looks at the still-bleaker future offered by 'naming rights'

Many people can recall where they were when they heard that John Lennon had been shot. I can’t. But I can remember exactly where I was when word came through that Bradford City’s ground had been renamed The Bradford And Bingley Building Society Stadium. I was in the offices of the Bradford Telegraph & Argus where, at the time, I was employed on the sports desk. The news did not impress the then-sports editor who, in a rare moment of decisiveness, said that we would con­tinue to call the ground Valley Parade. Un­surprisingly, the Bradford supporters opted to stick with Valley Parade as well. It’s tradition – you can’t change it just by handing over a wad of cash, can you?

Not far south, it’s a different story. Since moving from their old Leeds Road ground in 1994, Huddersfield Town have played at the McAlpine Stadium, named after the people who built it. Except, they don’t anymore. This year the naming sponsorship expired and they now play at The Galpharm Stadium. Same place, dif­ferent name. The sponsorship with McAlpine expired and the power of cash is such that alternatives that reflect the club’s tradition have been ditched in favour of a name determined by the size of the brown envelope.

Many Town fans resented the change, but what could they do? As the ground had no other name than a corporate one, they found themselves at the whim of the club who, in turn, needed the money and so would probably always auction the name to the highest bidder. A nightmare vision of the future emerges where clubs such as Huddersfield are driven by market forces to give their stadiums sillier and more demeaning names just to satisfy the banks. What will it be next time? The Bargain Booze Stadium? Don’t laugh – it’s already been tried: Witton Albion’s Wincham Park was called that for a couple of seasons.

Clubs, you see, have no shame. That’s why – at the other end of the scale – Arsenal were happy to name their new stadium at Ashburton Grove “the Emirates Stadium”, even though the word Emirates relates to a land far off and for the past few years has been associated with London rivals Chelsea (and will be on the Blues’ shirts until the end of the season). The fact that something as important as the stadium name can be sold off, as a result having no local, community or club resonance, shows that the clubs now feel totally immune to fan power. The boards of clubs always had the upper hand. Now they know they can operate with impunity.

Some might say that the clubs need the money to compete in football today. But, to take Arsenal’s case, the club are already wealthy and will, as a result of the new stadium, almost double their gate income. So there was surely room to insert something into the title of the stadium – as Southampton did in the case of St Mary’s – that could act as connection to the community and continuity when the 15-year deal expires and the stadium is given another name.

My club, Coventry City, is due to move into a new stadium next year. Most Sky Blues supporters were resigned to corporate naming for the new arena, as it is known. So when it was announced that it was to be the Jaguar Arena there was a sense of relief – a dignified name, thanks to sponsorship by a local firm with historic links. Jaguar have been building prestige cars in Coventry since 1928 and the deal seemed to quash the recurring rumours that the company was about to cut its links with the city.

But the honeymoon did not last long. Just a few weeks after the announcement, Jaguar announced that they were, effectively, cutting their links with the city by sacking 1,000 workers and reducing their main production plant at Browns Lane to little more than a branch office. That it did not close Browns Lane altogether was surely a piece of local politicking. In the light of spending £7 million on naming the arena for ten years, it had to keep a token presence in the city. And so, my club has become just a pawn in a public-relations game on a grander scale. Many fans would have preferred to see our team play at the Kwik Save Stadium if Jaguar would spend that £7m on reinvesting in production in their home city.

Soon Liverpool fans will start to play this little game. What was once the mighty and proud Anfield will become, well what? A sign in the tunnel saying “This is the Carlsberg Stadium” is not going to intimidate anyone, is it?

From WSC 214 December 2004. What was happening this month