There’s a fantastic new book that’s been published by Leon Gladwell called “Beyond the turnstile” which is full of oustanding pictures from his quest to capture the beauty of the game around the world. Leon contacted me about 18 months ago and asked me to write the forward for his book, which I was absolutely honoured to do. I focused on the comparison between football and religion and how the stadium had become the modern day place of worship, the new age cathedral.
But is football the new religion? And are football stadiums the cathedrals for the new common man? These are two questions that people have asked for years. Whilst the questions may be fanciful to some, belittling to others, there is some truth in the statements. Based on the continued growth in the commercialisation of the game I would suggest that some football clubs have a cult-like approach to fan engagement. Get them in as young as possible, ram emails down their throats as often as you can and then brainwash them to come and spend ridiculous sums of money on things like branded toasters, branded bottles of water and even branded vodka. There is certainly no end to what a football club will slap an advert on these days for cash – in some cases even the club themselves such as Red Bull Salzburg. However, apart from shirt sponsorship, stadium naming rights are the biggest asset a club has that they could monetise. In some countries, such as Germany, it is the norm to sell the naming rights on a regular basis but elsewhere in Europe where many grounds are not owned by the clubs, but by local authorities it is not as common, such as in Italy or Spain.
The situation in England is confused to say the least. If you look at the twenty biggest stadiums in England, only five are sponsored. The Emirates, The Etihad, The Ipro, The Ricoh Arena and The King Power Stadium. Interestingly there are a couple of other stadiums in the list that used to be “named” but have now dropped the convention. Middlesborough’s The Riverside started off life as the Cellnet and then the BT Cellnet stadium before reverting back to its proper name in 2003. Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium was originally known as the Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium, quite a mouthful before they withdrew their support in 2006. Oh, and who can forget the ridiculous situation at Newcastle United when St James’ Park was renamed the SportsDirect@St.James’ Park or something else ridiculous for a period of time. At number four on the list of stadiums based on capacity is the London Stadium, aka The Olympic Stadium where it is only a matter of time before some random name is added to the title (Mahindra or Tesco’s were the front runners a few months ago).
Stadium rebranding his hardly the religious approach akin to the “cathedrals for the common man” is it? For whose purpose is the naming of a stadium? The players? Will the team be more likely to turn performances up by 10% if they have a new name above their heads. The fans? Look at the situation in Dortmund. Do the Borussia fans bedecked in their yellow and black say, obviously translated from our German cousins “Are you going down the Westfalonstadion today” or “Shall we head off to the Signal Iduna Park”?
Even down in the Ryman League South we come across clubs who have sold the naming rights to their ground which leads to some confusion with the fans. Whilst the Shepherds Neame Stadium resonates with the town of Faversham and thus the football team, the Heards Renault Stadium is a grand name for Molesey’s Walton Road ground and the GAC Stadium is perhaps unknown to those outside of East Grinstead.
I have no issues with stadium naming rights as long as they are done for the right reasons. A long term commercial partnership for instance. You cannot have a better example than the Reebok. Most football fans will still consider it the name of Bolton Wanderer’s stadium despite the fact it has actually been sponsored by Macron since 2014. That’s the danger that could impact Arsenal when the naming rights of the Emirates comes up for renegotiation in 2028 – it will be hard for any brand to gain any commercial traction after twenty four years of sponsorship – which actually puts the airline in a strong negotiating position, knowing that few other organisations would be willing to invest in the brand.
Possibly the least successful example of stadium naming rights has to belong to Darlington FC. For 120 years of their history they played in the town centre at Feethams until the club were taken over by millionnaire George Reynolds who moved them in 2003 to the out of town, 25,000 capacity Reynolds Arena, complete with gold taps in the toilets and marble throughout. The club averaged 3,500 during their time in the stadium and fell out of the Football League in 2010. During that period the ground was known as the Northern Echo Darlington Arena, Williamson Motors, 96.6 TFM and Balfour Webnet before Darlington folded and reformed as Darlington 1883, moving to the more homely Blackwell Meadows. Today the stadium is owned by Darlington Mowden Park rugby club.