One of the surprises of the season so far has been the impressive form of Newcastle United. After an embarrassing five years under the guidance of Mike Ashley, Newcastle fans had finally been able to wear their famous black and white stripes with pride again. But whilst the Toon Army launched triumphant fireworks, following a Guy Fawkes Day win over Everton, Mike Ashley was plotting to crudely douse their celebratory bonfire.
In case you hadn’t heard, the Newcastle United owner has undermined nearly 120 years of tradition by renaming the ground after his own company, in a bid to attract a long term stadium sponsor. St James’ Park will now be known as the Sports Direct Arena and, frankly, this doesn’t sit well with me.
Evidently, stadium sponsorship is a lucrative opportunity for football clubs – for Newcastle it is predicted to be worth around £10 million per year – but is any sum of money really worth losing a part of your identity for?
Perhaps some fans would accept a change in stadium name, if it meant a stellar signing every season or a price freeze on tickets. I worry that if we fans don’t stand against these money driven changes, we may be left with a game that is barely recognisable from the one we all fell in love with.
There are now twelve clubs whose stadiums have been renamed for sponsorship purposes. Although all twelve may be financially better off as a result of the decision, their grounds are soulless empty places, stripped of the richness of tradition, drenched in bitter tears of capitalist regret.
Maybe I’m being a touch melodramatic. Maybe football isn’t quite that bad just yet. But I’ve seen where the commercial path that football has embarked upon leads. I’ve seen the future of English football and it chills me to my very core:
All clubs will be forced to sell their heritage to the highest bidder in order to compete with those who have already done so. It will become the norm for grounds to be rebranded in line with sponsorship commitments and our beloved ‘City Ground’ will be renamed the ‘KFC Bargain Bucket.’
Graven images of Colonel Sanders, licking his greasy capitalist fingers, will be erected on each corner of the ground. Numbed by the greed and avarice that surrounds the game, we will all stand idly by while they tear down the Brian Clough Stand and replace it with the ‘Popcorn Chicken End’. Meanwhile, wealthy fat cats will reap the rewards of our misery, laughing from on high, as they pour cheap mayonnaise over us, like the proverbial zinger burgers that we have become.
And it won’t stop at stadium sponsorship. Imagine our famous red shirts littered with a plethora of logos; twenty or more advertisements per player; a patchwork quilt of commercial devilry. The famous tricky tree will be auctioned off and replaced with a Coca Cola bottle and the two European Cup Stars will be shunted out to make way for an aristocratic Russian meerkat.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the first football team sells its name to a sponsor by the turn of the decade. The 2020 FA Cup Final might well be contested between ‘Tesco’ and ‘The Carphone Warehouse.’ By then a ninety minute game will be split into eighths to maximise the opportunity for advertisements and the grass pitch will have been replaced by a giant horizontal billboard.
Many of you will read this and think I’m a few Derby fans short of a flock, or that I’m hallucinating because of a fried chicken overdose … but I implore you to take a moment and look around the sport you love. Television, advertising and sponsorship already have a stranglehold over football. It’s absolutely everywhere.
Clubs are being frogmarched into securing as many revenue streams as possible in order to survive and compete. Sadly, there may come a time when all else but money is forgotten in football.
Maybe I’m naïve to think that the great tradition of English football should still exist in the twenty first century. Surely it’s a good thing that the game is getting money from other sources, not just supporters? If the clubs in question used their stadium sponsorship money to slash ticket prices or improve the match day experience for fans then perhaps the ends might justify the means. The reality is that the money secured in these soul-wrenching deals will be used on transfer fees and players’ wages.
Fans may well want to see the best players at their club and the people in charge of football clubs may well be driven by the desire to please fans, in this respect. The problem is that as football becomes more business orientated and revenue-driven, it is detaching itself from its own raw brilliance.
Stadium Sponsorship could well be the first step on a disastrous road for football. Those with power must be careful that, in the pursuit of gold, they don’t leave football a hollow meaningless shell.