What's in a Name?
This is a guest post from Ben Woolhead, co-founder of the esteemed Newcastle United Blog, Black and White and Read All Over. Ben turns his attention to the ongoing furore surrounding the naming rights to St. James’ Park.
Earlier this month it was announced that Newcastle owner Mike Ashley had taken it upon himself to rebrand St James’ Park with an unwieldy new name, crowbarring in a reference to his sports firm for the duration of the season to demonstrate the value of naming rights. Cue a storm of outrage from fans, myself included, and a chorus of guffaws from everyone else (apart, perhaps, from fans of Spurs and Chelsea, both of whom subsequently and bizarrely followed our lead and declared themselves open to offers).
Should we have been surprised? No, not really. What else were we to expect of a man apparently hell-bent on a dastardly mission to reduce us to nothing more than a laughing stock, who claimed in all seriousness that the club’s handling of the Keegan affair was ‘an exercise in public relations’?
Is it (he writes, gritting his teeth and temporarily taking on the role of Devil’s advocate) all a lot of fuss over nothing, though? It could be worse – Ashley could have emulated his great business rival, Dave Whelan, a man who’s repeatedly accused our owner of undignified behaviour but who has just renamed Wigan’s ground after himself? (People who live in glass houses shouldn’t wander around in the nude and all that, Dave…)
And after all, branded stadiums are nothing new. This season in the Championship we’ll visit the Ricoh Arena and the Walkers Stadium, and the FA Cup might send us to our customary 3-0 defeat at the Emirates. But these are newly built grounds with no history to speak of, like Huddersfield’s Galpharm Stadium, already onto its second corporate name. A more apt comparison is York’s Kit Kat Crescent, a name so daft that, like ours, it seems parodic.
According to Ashley and his stooge Derek Llambias, the rationale behind the rebranding – one with which prospective buyer Barry Moat has said he agrees – is a simple win-win equation: we get cash, the brand gets valuable exposure.
But it just won’t work like that. For a start, we’re getting nothing from Ashley’s company for this season – nowt, nada, zilch. The (supposed) benefits are all on the firm’s side. In any case, who’s going to shop with them on the strength of the renaming? No one in Newcastle, certainly – it’s going to make us even more determined not to line Ashley’s pockets.
What’s more, having seen all the furore, anger and negative press the rebranding has provoked, which company is really going to want to take on the mantle in the summer? It’s hardly the attractive prospect Ashley envisages. Even the business logic that argues for the benefit of gaining exposure every time the new name is mentioned looks far from sound when you consider that the BBC – gawd bless ‘em – appear to be deliberately steering clear of reference to the stadium. Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes on The Football League Show actually went so far as to make explicit that she wouldn’t be giving Ashley’s firm the oxygen of publicity.
But, still, does the rebranding matter? Well, yes it does, for two reasons.
First, as yet another instance of ‘man of the people’ Ashley riding roughshod over the wishes of the supporters, 23,000 of whom signed a petition and one of whom – MP David Clelland – tabled an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons in protest. The unilateral decision is symptomatic of the contempt with which we’ve been treated over the past two years.
And second, as a tawdry defacing of a century of proud tradition. No doubt for some this casts us in the role of obstinate ostriches, trying to obstruct ‘progress’ and ignoring the modern world in which we live by sticking our heads in the sand. But from here it seems like a short step to leagues full of Red Bull Salzburgs, and that’s a future that doesn’t bear contemplating.