It seems like every other day now I’m seeing stories of various sporting stadiums looking to change their names to that of a sponsor. This used to be considered a very American trend but recent years have seen it become much more common in the UK.
Look at the English football Premier League alone; you have Emirates (Arsenal), Etihad (Manchester City), Reebok (Bolton Wanderers), Britannia (Stoke City), Liberty (Swansea) and DW (Wigan). That’s just over 25% of the teams in the league. With Chelsea also said to be looking to sell the rights to their stadium name it doesn’t so much look like this is the start of a trend but like one that has already arrived.
Part of what makes the job of anyone involved in naming so difficult is the fact that people feel like they own names in some way. The history of branding is littered with examples of product name changes that caused ‘outrage’ amongst the public (I have a friend who still calls a Snickers a ‘Marathon’). The debate on stadium name changes although audible has been much more muted. I’d like to think it’s simply because supporters are more focused on the positive side effects of a name change; Emirates Airline apparently paid Arsenal £100 million for the name of Arsenal’s stadium. I suspect though that the real reason is simply that it’s not the done thing to take a swipe at the club you love.
So does this mean that everyone just moves on and accepts the status quo? Unfortunately I have my doubts. Ex-Arsenal player Samir Nasri recently moved to Manchester City and on arrival at his new club said “Arsenal have good fans but they are not as passionate since they moved from Highbury to the Emirates”. Now if this is true (I’m sure Arsenal fans would disagree), what happened? Highbury was a great stadium; I went there myself many times and didn’t think there was anywhere else quite like it. The name ‘Highbury’ meant something to Arsenal fans; it conjured up that history and passion. I understand that times change and the team had to move to a bigger ground. I think just transferring the name ‘Highbury’ would have been inappropriate and calling the new ground ‘New Highbury’ would have been very weak, but ‘Emirates’? It’s not a name that says ‘we are going to carry on creating that history here’. The very nature of a corporate sponsorship name is that it is going to be impermanent which is something that football fans just don’t identify with. That name by its very nature can’t be something that football fans feel passion for.
As a Chelsea fan I was very happy to hear of the apparent troubles the club is having in selling the naming rights to Stamford Bridge. For me that name means something the same as Old Trafford, The Nou Camp, Anfield and The Bernebéu means something to others around the world. I just don’t think I’d feel the same telling my mates I was off to watch the game at Bernie’s Fish Bar Stadium. So to any football club chairmen out there my professional advice is to try to understand your audience the same as any corporation should…it’s not about how many people admire your product, it’s about how many are passionate enough to engage with it. In professional sports the passion is already there and you should be trying to maintain that in any way you can.