A national disgrace and a branding tragedy

For the first 50 years of its existence it did not look particularly impressive. Wandering past the site in the late 18th century you would have simply seen a 30-acre cabbage patch in the middle of South London surrounded by a circular lane.

Eventually, permission was granted to turn the area into a ‘subscription cricket ground’. Some 10,000 pieces of turf were cut and transported from nearby Tooting Common and, at the start of the summer of 1846, the sound of willow on leather first echoed across Kennington. Inspired by the shape of the former cabbage patch and the boundary road that surrounded it, the new ground was named The Oval.

It eventually became the home of Surrey Cricket Club but its importance to English sport runs much deeper. The Oval hosted the first ever Test match on English soil in 1880, in which a young WG Grace scored his maiden century. Two years later Australia’s victory at The Oval led to the creation of the Ashes. The ground played a crucial role in other English sports, staging the first FA Cup final in 1872. It was also the location for the first rugby internationals between England and Wales and, later that year, England and Scotland. Philip Larkin even referenced it in verse. No wonder ESPN concluded The Oval could rightfully “claim to be the most important general sports ground in the world”.

It will be centre stage for sporting prowess once again this week as it hosts the final Test match of the current Ashes series. But it will not be The Oval to which we all turn this week but rather ‘the Kia Oval’. Thanks to a five-year sponsorship deal signed in 2011, England’s most venerated sporting venue is now named after a Korean car manufacturer.

Renaming The Oval is just about the most horrendous crime against English culture you could imagine. It would be easy for the rest of this column to devolve into xenophobia and elitism, so let me make it clear that I think South Korea is an admirable country, that Kia is a fine automotive brand (if you like that kind of thing) and that its generosity in supporting county cricket should be lauded.

That said, the Kia brand has no place anywhere near The Oval. It is a national disgrace and a branding tragedy. For starters, the name Kia – which means ‘to arise to the world from Asia’ – is highly inappropriate for the epicentre of all things English. How would the Koreans like it if a British brand such as Tesco paid for the rights to Tongdosa Temple, one of the three venerated jewel temples of Korea, and renamed it the Tesco Tongdosa Temple? And for Koreans reading this, trust me, cricket plays just as important role in our national identity as Buddha does in yours.

Second, while a simple name like The Oval might appear underwhelming compared with the complex, trademarked naming conventions of the 21st century that gave us such winners as Mondelez and Altria, the opposite is the case.

The beauty of naming a ground back in 1845 was that there was no precedent. Long before Wembley, the Camp Nou or Fenway Park had even been contemplated, you could call a pitch The Oval and, by dint of being the first, the simplicity of the name conferred both its status and its place in history. In naming terms ‘The’ is just as important as ‘Oval’ in establishing the identity and provenance of this great venue.

Third, Kia’s patronage is ephemeral. The company was only founded in 1944, by which time The Oval had already hosted almost a century of international sport. The naming rights for The Oval will expire in 2016 and almost certainly pass to another, equally inappropriate, sponsor. The bastard history of naming rights has already seen The Oval renamed the AMP Oval, the Foster’s Oval and the Brit Oval. What next? KFC?

Has it really come to this? Must we embrace Korean sponsors and trade a piece of our collective sporting soul for the privilege? Is the honest era when grounds were named for shape and simplicity over?

I’ll leave it to Larkin and his great poem MCMXIV, which includes a reference to The Oval, to explain:

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word – the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

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