I was shocked to hear that Mike Ashley and his board took the decision to change the name from sportsdirect.com@St. James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena.
I can understand the reasons for the board wanting to change the name to attract a sponsor but, as the fan reaction shows, this matter could have been handled with a lot more sensitivity.
At Sunderland University today, we had a presentation from Lesley Callaghan, ex-Marketing and Commercial Director of Sunderland AFC. The presentation itself was, ironically, well timed, as she explained the business side of a football club. One thing that stuck out was after being asked if Sunderland would consider a stadium name change she said: “It would be difficult for the fans to accept at first if it’s an older stadium, but to secure extra funding for the club I’m sure Sunderland would do the same tomorrow.”
This strikes up a very interesting debate as to whether or not more and more teams will find themselves pressured to give themselves up to corporations to attract sponsorship and finance their drive in to Europe. The worst thing about it from our perspective is that the Chairman of the club is using the club to extend his brand’s activity.
As anyone who attends a home game can see, all of the ground is plastered with the Sports Direct Logo: the advertising boards, the sign on the Gallowgate End, either side of the newly affixed Newcastle United sign, and also in between home and away fans in Level 7. Callaghan pointed out today that clubs try and market for kit sponsors and potential stadium sponsors first, and then move to secure sponsorship for advertising boards: “If you see on the LED boards around the pitch that a club is promoting in house deals, such as slashed ticket prices or other offers, you know there is inventory left to fill in terms of sponsorship.”
If Ashley is serious about offering the club up to outside sponsorship, why cover the stadium with his own company’s logo? I understand it’s his club, and he has a right to, but Sir John Hall said in August: “When Mike Ashley wanted to make a deal for Newcastle United, I was keen to know why they wanted the club and they were quite honest. They wanted to market their sports goods in the Far East and would use the Club to help do this.”
If the name change proves anything, it shows that Ashley wants to build on the clubs successful start to the season and reap the rewards. And that is providing a sponsor does, in fact, come in at the end of it.
Derek Llambias has said that he has a very small window of time to secure a shirt sponsor, and that the club are keen to offer stadium sponsorship in a package that would be worth up to £10 million a year for the club. The equivalent of a “new player every season”. It’s appreciated that the club needs to increase its revenue stream if we want to challenge for European honours and restore former glories but, in my eyes, this could have been done by offering advertising deals to other companies, rather than letting Ashley fill up the boards for his own needs. Money coming from his company and in to the club can’t realistically be regarded as profit.
Even Newcastle City Council have expressed their condemnation of the name change. If Ashley thought running the club was difficult before, his PR team has a lot of work to do now to clean up this mess. The timing of the decision shows that this had been carefully planned, we don’t return to St. James’ Park until the start of December – perhaps they were hoping that things would die down before then.
Sir Hall said it best: “I think Ashley has to sit down with the fans and explain what they want to do, not just through press statements, but explain properly what they want to do. You cannot airbrush 100 years of history.” Although I share a lot of the same sentiment as yourselves, we can’t afford to let this ruin our spectacular start of the season. Stick behind our boys at all times.
Support the team. Not the regime.