Newcastle supporters have had a lot to complain about since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007. His appointment of Dennis Wise as director of football, which subsequently led to the resignation of manager and fan favorite Kevin Keegan. The club being relegated in 2009 for the first time in 20 years. The £35 million sale of England striker Andy Carroll, seemingly with the funds being pocketed by Ashley.
But now it seems that Ashley has gone too far. What’s the latest “last straw” for Newcastle supporters? The renaming of their famous grounds, St. James’ Park. Ashley’s been working on selling the naming rights to the grounds for nearly three years now. In October of 2009, Ashley decided to name the stadium sportsdirect.com @ St. James’ Park, using his online sportswear retailer as naming rights holder in an effort to drum up interest in an outside group purchasing the rights.
This plan had not garnered the attention Ashley was hoping for, so this week he announced that the name St. James’ Park would be discarded all together. What was once St. James’ Park is now Sports Direct Arena. Again, Ashley using his sportswear retailer’s name to drum up interest in buying the rights to the entirety of the grounds.
“When we initially launched our plans at the end of 2009, we invited sponsors to attach their brand to that of St James’ Park,” Newcastle Managing Director Derek Llambias said. “However, it has become clear that in order to make the proposition as commercially attractive as possible, a potential sponsor must be given the opportunity to fully rebrand the stadium.
“Naming the stadium the Sports Direct Arena helps up to showcase the opportunity to interested parties. We are now actively seeking a long-term sponsor wishing to acquire full naming rights for the stadium.”
Considering this same strategy of using a dummy sponsorship deal to lure a real sponsorship deal has been unsuccessful for the past three years, I’m skeptical rebranding the grounds in its entirety will do much more, but I digress.
But are Newcastle supporters justified in their disgust over Ashley’s latest attempt at a money grab? After all, this is a club that plays in the Barclays Premier League, competes for the FA Cup with Budweiser and the Carling Cup, and runs around with Northern Rock plastered on the front of their shirts.
And selling naming rights isn’t that uncommon in the sport. Manchester City just sold the rights to Manchester Stadium for £400 million to Etihad Airways. In an effort to keep up with the mega money coming into the sport, Arsenal didn’t just sell the naming rights to Highbury Stadium. They turned the grounds into luxury flats, built a new 60,000-seat stadium a 10-minute-walk away, and sold the naming rights of that stadium to Emirates airline.
Roman Abramovich is trying to do the same thing at Chelsea. Abramovich tried to buy the publicly held Stamford Bridge from the supporters who purchased it in an effort to save the club in the 1990s in an effort to mimmic Arsenal’s plan and develop the current ground after moving to a new stadium. The Chelsea Pitch Owners declined Abramovich’s offer, and the naming rights for Stamford Bridge are expected to be sold beginning in 2012/13.
Some will argue that none of the clubs that have sold their rights have grounds with the tradition of St. James’ Park. I might disagree. Stamford Bridge is 108 years old, Arsenal up and left their home of 93 years at Highbury, and Liverpool have actively been looking for ways to get out of historic Anfield in order to turn more of a profit at a new stadium, which would undoubtedly sell its naming rights.
If Newcastle is ever going to compete with the big clubs, it has to put sentimental ideals like this aside and generate as much money as possible. Supporters need to determine what’s more important to them: the name of the stadium or having the old stadium at all. Because judging by other clubs, new stadiums with corporate names seem to be the way to go. Besides, soccer sold out many, many years ago.