Newcastle United has taken the much derided decision to temporarily rename its St James’ Park after the online arm of owner Mike Ashley’s sports retail business and will now be known as the sportsdirect.com@St James’ Park Stadium to act as a “showcase” to potential long-term naming rights partners.
The new Chelsea chairman, former Umbro marketing director Ron Gourlay, incurred the wrath of some supporters by announcing the club was looking for a “blue chip” stadium partner to help keep it on an equal financial footing with its rivals.
Meanwhile, Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks said he is looking to raise £250m to help finance the building of the club’s proposed new stadium by signing a stadium partner, while Tottenham Hotspur is to offer naming rights for its new 56,000 capacity ground, due to be ready for the 2012/2013 season.
The benefits to clubs are clear, naming rights can offer much needed revenue to help fund on-field ambitions, avoid financial difficulties or help pay for new stadiums.
However, given the disgust expressed on phone-ins and club forums by some Chelsea and Newcastle United supporters over what they see as “corporate colonialism”, it is clear there are also pitfalls for clubs and brands alike.
Karen Earl, chairman of sponsorship consultancy Synergy, says renaming existing stadiums invites accusations of commercial opportunism that can reflect badly on both the club and sponsor.
“A sponsor needs to have a reason to be there otherwise fans will see it as simply a commercial move. It needs to be activated properly and needs to add value,” she adds.
There are already examples of sponsored stadiums in the Premier League – Bolton Wanderers’ Reebok Stadium and Arsenal’s Emirates to name two. Neither club appears to have attracted the same level of rancour directed at Chelsea and Newcastle chiefs.
David Atkinson, founding partner of Space and head of its sports and entertainment division, says the difference between Arsenal and Chelsea is that the former’s new ground was new and did not previously have a name that resonated with supporters.
“I can envisage how football clubs can conceive new relationships and rights with a new stadium, like Arsenal and Emirates. But I think it’s a huge ask to ask sponsors and brands to add an extra layer of sponsorship into, say, the Stamford Bridge message and Chelsea rights,” he says.
Sponsorship experts also stress the importance of ensuring the sponsored stadium name is memorable and simple, unlike the temporary moniker for St James’ Park or Hull City’s Kingston Communications Stadium, which is better known by fans and the media alike as the KC Stadium.
Pippa Collett, managing director of Sponsorship Consulting, says clumsy corporate branding will mean the sponsors’ name is seldom mentioned.
“A long name that includes a brand reference will inevitably get shortened and you may not like the moniker that becomes popular as a result,” she adds.
Observers note that naming rights can also offer benefits to brands. For firms looking to build recognition in the UK, or tap into the global popularity of the Premier League, naming rights can be a cost efficient route.
Antony Marcou, managing director of Sports Revolution, says the global exposure of the Premier League is a “crucial factor” in a brand’s decision to sponsor a football stadium.
“The Emirates stadium will receive more international coverage than the 02 Arena, because of the global television footprint enjoyed by the Premier League. This will be extended into audio and print channels as commentators and journalists alike refer to the stadium by name,” he says.
A case can be built for offering naming rights it seems, but only if done sensitively and if a sponsor is going to offer supporters added value.
But definitely not, as Atkinson argues if you are going to take the Newcastle United route.
“Let us hope that other brands and clubs have more sense than to look for short term income at the loss of respectability, common sense, and a relationship with their fans and other sponsors.”