Ask any Southampton football fan where the Saints play and they would say St Mary’s Stadium. Or the New Dell. Or maybe, at a pinch, SMS. The stadium’s proper name – the Friends Provident St Mary’s – is unlikely to be mentioned. This is a cautionary tale for all would-be sponsors keen to lend their name to stadiums around the country.
The Friends Provident deal was hatched towards the end of a stadium-naming boom in the late Nineties. At the time, the sponsorship industry was primed to find a brand-name sponsor for every stadium in the country. It was spurred on by events in the US, where stadium sponsorship has been a billion-dollar industry since the Seventies.
Now, however, only the Reebok-sponsored Bolton Wanderers stadium stands as an example of how successful naming sponsorship can work in the UK.
The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) is mindful of this as it boosts its efforts to find a naming sponsor for Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium by employing the services of sports marketing agency IMG (MW last week).
WRU marketing chief Gwyn Thomas is in talks with two multinational companies and expects further talks with others about the 15 sponsorship packages on offer, which range from branding the stadium roof to naming the stadium itself.
The Millennium Commission, which partially funded the stadium, has been consulted on the name change. Thomas says that the ideal sponsor would complement the “Millennium” name, and would be able to leverage its brand in the stadium. However, he admits that the name could be dropped if necessary.
This admission, says Karen Earl Sports consulting director Tim Crow, could be the clincher. Crow says that companies are loath to partner a stadium that has an existing name, and are even less keen to share a name.
He says: “There must be only one name, otherwise the media will edit it out. The sponsor relies on media mentions foremost – it is badging.”
Crow points to Southampton’s St Mary’s as an example of a sponsor being edited out, as well as Middlesbrough’s BT Cellnet Riverside stadium – a mouthful of a name, that was cut to Riverside long before the Cellnet brand ceased to exist.
A Friends Provident spokesman, however, defends the unwieldy name of Southampton’s stadium as a necessary compromise between the club, the company and the fans. He says companies cannot stamp their name on a club without upsetting fans.
A further problem for the Millennium Stadium, according to Crow, is that sponsorship works better on newly built stadiums. The growth of stadium sponsorship in the US was fuelled by a spate of stadium building in the Seventies and Eighties.
Preparations for the 2006 World Cup in Germany have also led to a number of deals resulting in brand name stadiums, including Hamburg’s AOL Arena and Munich’s Allianz Arena. However, it has not been without opposition: German tabloid Die Bild has waged an on-going campaign against the branding of Munich’s ground.
This local opposition, says Ben Wells of sports agency Redmandarin, is a potential problem for sponsorship deals. Wells says fans are unwilling to accept overt commercialism in their leisure time. Bolton’s association with Reebok has been successful because the sportswear maker originated in the town, makes the kit and is an employer in the region.
Wells says: “The name has to be right, which is why Walkers should be a successful sponsor for Leicester. Walkers is seen as a local firm, and can therefore benefit from credible promotions and associations.”
An industry source says that another reason why stadium sponsorship has failed to grow rapidly in the UK is because of broadcast rights packages. In the US, broadcasters are contracted to use sponsors’ names. “But the Premier League doesn’t do that for football stadiums here, so names get lost,” he says.
Stephen Pearson, managing director of Sportacus, says the price stadium rights sellers want does not match the price buyers are willing to pay. Pearson blames Leicester’s Walkers Bowl deal.
“Leicester only managed to get £1.5m for a ten-year deal, which is considerably less than the £5m asking price. You still hear people asking for £30m, but Leicester is used as a benchmark now.”
The size of a potential sponsorship package will be an issue for Arsenal Football Club, which faces a £400m bill for building its new stadium. Commercial director Adrian Ford says the club will look for a naming rights sponsor.
“We will target an elite list of blue chips. We will start looking in September and attack all possible deals,” says Ford.
Meanwhile, Wembley National Stadium is looking for founding sponsors, although its contract with Sport England means it is not permitted to search for a naming rights sponsor.
The terms of the lottery-funded deal stipulate that private finance from a single headline sponsor is not allowed, although Wembley will be able to generate income through other sponsorship opportunities.
A spokeswoman for Sport England adds that a headline sponsor was never a goal, as Wembley has a globally recognised name with a strong brand heritage.
But Wembley could be unique in having a name too good for sponsorship money to buy. With further expensive stadiums built every year, few will be able to avoid the attraction of a named sponsor to cover their bills. Whether the fans sing its praises is another thing entirely.