Newcastle United director Mike Ashley’s decision to sell the naming rights of Newcastle’s historic home ground St James’ Park has captured media attention on a national level. The new sponsor will be revealed in the coming months and in the meantime, Ashley has taken the decision to name the ground after his own company as ‘the Sports Direct Arena’ in an effort to coax in potential sponsors.
The decision to rename has naturally been welcomed with hostility by fans and football purists alike. English football is in economic transition. In the past, a football team was something of a public heritage business, built and sustained on the backs of rich local benefactors, supporters and local communities. In recent years globlised business and market forces have seized football, which had stood as one of the last bastions of community minded business, run at a sustenance-level for the people. Ticket prices were affordable and the choice of whether to go to the match could be made spontaneously on a Saturday afternoon. Football was the pastime of the working classes.
The modern day club is a multi-national business, based on ruthlessly exploiting every avenue of the market. Billionaire owners, global branding, and ‘profit maximisation’ are the order of the day, making it easy for the ordinary fan to feel sidelined. We are told that if we want our clubs to compete on the pitch they must compete financially – which the modern fan does not fail to realise – but how much of a clubs soul is sold in the process?
Ashley, it must be stressed, deserves applause for his attempt to make Newcastle “self financing”, but he seems to have overstepped the mark in selling a heritage that was built by the fans, and for what…
Ashley claims the renaming rights along with a dual shirt sponsorship deal could net up to £10million; a new player in modern terms.
In a commercial sense, Ashley should be asking how much the renaming could damage his brand in the long term. Newcastle is not a club associated with on-field success – no major trophies in 42 years is testimony to that. They are a club whose “brand” is synonymous with tradition and nostalgia; the famous black and white stripes, the passionate support, and, St James’ Park. In undermining a rich history, Ashley could be undermining what Newcastle United is. With the absence of silverware, heritage is an inherent part of their brand and therefore all Newcastle have; leaving you asking the question of whether Ashley’s idea is merely symptomatic of the greed and monetary short-termism endemic in the financial sector.
On a social level, local institutions like St James’ provide cultural identity: a sense of belonging that binds us to our forefathers and builds a sense of community and common purpose: real, “Big Society”. On the pitch, the decision could disrupt a fine start to the season.
Mike Ashley’s decision seems particularly pertinent, at a time when the average man is becoming more and more disenchanted with how the world of big business seems to operate with increasing disdain towards our interests and values. At 119 years old, St James’ Park is a secular cathedral which bridges generations, and in many people’s eyes renaming it is classless and tantamount to sacrilege.