Why renaming St James’ Park won’t work (except for Sports Direct)

It's St James' Park!

It's St James' Park!

To say there’s been some opposition to Mike Ashley’s rehash of his previously botched plan to sell the St James’ Park naming rights would be an understatement.

However as more details have emerged it’s become ever more obvious that this 2.0 version is scarcely better than the previous one, and it seems more than likely that the club will once again end up with the worst of both worlds, a cheap tacky stadium with an awful name and nothing whatsoever to show for it.

Referring to sponsorship consultant Tim Crow’s “Six golden rules” of stadium naming rights, quotes from experts from the world of sports sponsorship about the naming rights offer, and some of my own personal thoughts, I will attempt to outline some of the reasons even this revamped naming rights offer will have scant chance of success.

Let’s begin with golden rule number one:

1. The stadium must have only one short name. If there are two names, one of which is the sponsor’s, guess which one the media, and the fans, will edit out? ‘The Reebok Stadium’ works: so does ‘The Emirates’. Conversely, horrors like ‘Sports Direct.com@St James’ Park’ always quite deservedly bomb.”

OK, this is about the old attempt at a rename but in that attempt were Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias really so complacent that they didn’t bother to to consult any reputable outside experts in marketing, who almost certainly would have should have told them how unappealing this ridiculous e.mail style name would be? If they did, did they simply ignore them or just employ yes men who just told them whatever they wanted to hear? Whichever it was, if they treat something as important to fans as the name of the club’s traditonal home in such a casual fashion, it shows a remarkable arrogance and contempt, not to mention complacency and incompetance.

2. Avoid re-naming an existing stadium with heritage. If you do, you run the risk of being edited out (The Oval) or the object of acrimony (SportsDirect.com@St James’ Park). It’s much easier to start with the blank canvas of a new stadium. But don’t forget to follow rule number one.

St James’ Park has all but 120 years of heritage with Newcastle United, one of the most famous football teams in the country. It was also the major football ground of the City for twelve years before that, when it was the home of Newcastle Rangers. Beyond football itself, it is part of the fabric of the whole city. Today, the 52,000+ capacity modern stadium looms down on the City Centre like a giant cathedral from it’s position atop a hill. It cannot be ignored.

Newcastle United’s Managing Director, Derek Llambias, claimed that this time, the club consulted with “several different branding experts”, yet they still chose to ignore this fundamental flaw. When questioned by the BBC’s Mick Lowes about the problem of the stadium’s rich history and tradition getting in the way, and the club continuing to be referred to by it’s proper name, St James’ Park, Llambias gave a response that would be seen as breathtaking arrogance by any prospective sponsors there might be out there. He said:

“We understand that side of it but it’s the sponsor’s responsibilty as well as ours to move forward. Time will dissolve that.”

No it isn’t Derek, and the name of St James’ Park won’t “dissolve” as easily as you seem to think. Though things being what they are in the hell that is the modern world, I can only hope that the name of St James Park is still around when you and your fat handler are rotting away in a pine box. But anyway, from a sponsor’s point of view, why should they pay millions for the privilege of putting up with all the baggage from your flawed concept when they could find a less controversial sponsorship opportunity elsewhere?

In that same interview Llambias also said:

“I totally respect the tradition and history of the club”

He says this, yet in their arrogance, he and Ashley once again failed to consult fans over the name change. We fans down the genarations are as much a part of the history and tradition of the club as the club itself. This contempt for our opinions on such an important matter as the name of the club’s traditional home, a name which has existed for so long, hasn’t gone unnoticed by the people who advise potential sponsors. On this lack of consultation, chairman of sponsorship and PR agency Sports Impact, John Taylor, remarked:

“What they should have done and do not seem to have is take soundings from fans and launch a sympathetic PR campaign, not just rush headlong into announcing a crass decision.”

The chief executive of the sponsorship and management firm Fast Track, Andy Westlake, also saw the fans being of great importance in a successful sponsorship arrangement. He said of the St James’ Park naming rights issue:

“I don’t think any brand will be buying in to naming rights at Newcastle unless they are focusing on building a relationship with fans. In this [recessionary] market you have to recognise what sponsorship is about: adding value for fans in the club they love,”

Finally, Westlake had a very intersting take on the current furore surrounding the decision, saying:

“But Newcastle fans are universally against this. Perhaps he [Ashley] is generating the wrath so that a brand coming in can restore the St James’ Park name and be loved for it. Otherwise, I can’t explain it.”

I very much doubt it, however that’s a very interesting idea that may even generate great PR for a company way beyond the boundaries of the North East.

Touching on the damage which can be caused to the history and tradition, and also the “brand” that is Newcastle United, deputy managing director of sponsorship consultancy Synergy, Dominic Curran, said:

“The reason any sponsor associates with you is to associate with your brand, and if you damage or devalue your own brand then you could lose sponsorship revenue over the long run anyway. Because it’s your brand that you’ve really got to sell. You’ve got to be careful because when you are buying into something like Newcastle you’re buying into the history and local passion – you don’t want to damage that.”

Which also brings us to another point, the awful “showcase” idea which has already cheapened Newcastle United’s brand by further, and inextricably linking it with Mike Ashley’s low budget, tacky, and somewhat disreputable sportwear retailing firm, Sports Direct, who have become infamous for practices such as putting reduced price tags on items before they have even left the sweatshop in Laos. Rather than enhancing the offer to prospective sponsors, it will almost certainly cheapen it. If you were a prospective sponsor of the stadium, would you feel that merely following in the wake of a low class company such as Sports Direct would enhance your own brand, or detract from it?

Going back once again to Crow’s “Golden Rules” though:

3. The exception to this (Rule number 2) is when a stadium or arena is unloved and/or decrepit and as a result is going to be re-built and/or re-launched – for example the way the Millennium Dome became The O2 and Lansdowne Road became the Aviva Stadium. But again, don’t forget to follow rule number one.

Is St James’ Park “unloved and decrepit?” I’m pretty sure that once again, most of you will know the answer to that one as least as well as I do…

4. You must pay enough. There was an outcry in Leicester against Walker’s – previously a relatively popular local employer – when it was announced that the company had paid only £150,000 per year for 10 years to sponsor the new Leicester City Stadium. This was unfavourably compared with the millions the company had spent using Gary Lineker in its TV advertising.

Well Ashley’s peoposition seems to be too high rather than too low. Llambias has ambitiously claimed that he expects the club can generate “between £8-10 million a year” for sponsorship, then adding (possibly in an attempt to assuage the anger of fans by focusing on the potential benefit) “that would be another player”. Judging by other naming rights deals both here and overseas (with one recent notable exception) this is closer to the amount the club could expect for a shirt AND naminng rights deal. On this, chief executive of the management and brand consultancy company Red Mandarin, Shaun Whatling, seemed to think that this sum was too high too. He also questioned the wisdom of revealing the amount they hoped to raise commenting:

“They’re unwise to raise expectations of £10 million incremental revenue and creating linkage with new signings – there’s already antagonism amongst fans to the sale of naming rights and Derek Llambias is now preparing a frosty welcome for any sponsor buying in ‘on the cheap’.”

Once again, if Llambias does his usual trick of promising that the money raised in an unpopular move will be reinvested in a star player, then fails to deliver, sponsors may worry that some of this might also rebound on them as well.

Many other experts from the industry were also less than encouraging about this figure quoted by Llambias. Dr Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University told financial newspaper, City A.M.

“I think they are probably being a bit too optimistic. The likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City may be able to do it, but after that it slips away very, very rapidly and I’m not sure Newcastle have the domestic or international profile to justify this kind of claim”

Well speaking as someone who has travelled to several faraway places in the past, I would say that Professor Chadwick seems to have somewhat underestimated Newcastle United’s international reach. I remember that the first time I got off a plane in India, the first local lad I met was wearing a Magpie shirt, and I’ve even met people in places like Vietnam and Cambodia who have heard of Alan Shearer and the Toon. Quite a few users of this site seem to hail from the United States too, as well as many other places. In my experience of meeting Toon fans around the world, we seem to appeal to Premiership fans who have a tendency to favour the underdog, and who love a good soap opera! Then again, some might say that I am more than a little biased in this regard. But anyway, getting back to the point, Sports Impact’s John Taylor also seemed to have doubt at the figure quoted by Llambias:

“I think £10m is on the top side simply because it will not be known as whatever it is called – because it is St James’ Park. Their only hope would have been to call it the X, Y, Z Park.”

Synergy’s Dominic Curran seemed to agree that the figure seemed a little ambitious too, also adding that he saw St James’ as a particularly risky proposition:

“I’d be surprised if it was £10m a season. If you are going to do a stadium naming deal there are many reasons why you wouldn’t do this one in particular”

Worryingly, he then suggested that the deal may actually damage Newcastle United’s brand adding:

“The reason any sponsor associates with you is to associate with your brand, and if you damage or devalue your own brand then you could lose sponsorship revenue over the long run anyway. Because it’s your brand that you’ve really got to sell. You’ve got to be careful because when you are buying into something like Newcastle you’re buying into the history and local passion – you don’t want to damage that.”

To put this £8-10 million amount into perspective, Arsenal secured around £2.75 million per annum from airline company, Emirates, for the naming rights of their new 60,000 seater stadium in North London’s Ashburton Grove. The deal also included a further £6.5 million per annum for shirt sponsorship. As you can see, this isn’t much more than a quarter of what Llambias hopes to receive for the St James’ Park naming rights. It should also be borne in mind that as a brand new stadium, Ashburton Grove was a much less “difficult” propostion to sponsors than a stadium as steeped in history and tradition as our much loved “Cathedral on the hill”.

On the other hand, Manchester City are now receiving a huge sum, up to £30-40 million pounds per annum from another United Arab Emirates airline, Etihad, for the naming rights of their Eastlands stadium, which also included shirt and training ground sponsorship too. However there is MUCH more to this deal that meets the eye. It’s a story which involves very close ties between Etihad, Manchester City’s owners and UEFA’s new “Financial Fair Play” regulations. You can read more about in this story. The sum Arsenal receive for their naming rights is far closer to the mark and compared with that figure, for a club who regularly appear in the Champion’s League, the one Llambias is quoting does indeed seem quite ambitious indeed.

5. You must be in it for the long term, for two reasons: to demonstrate your commitment (see also rule number four) and also because if you do it for long enough, the return on investment in terms of media impressions alone will be enormous – as long as you’ve followed rule number one.

To my knowledge, after extensive checking, Llambias has yet to make any public statements on how long any potential naming rights deal may last, though they usually tend to last for ten years or more.

6. Once you’ve followed rules 1-5, the hard work really starts – gaining the respect and admiration of the fans and the media for what you’re doing.

If you recall some of the experts quoted above on the importance of the fans involvement to the sponsors, the contemptible way we have been treated by Ashley and Llambias has left any who might be brave enough to step in with a lot of work to do. That’s how they would see it anyway.

For my last quote, I will go back to the writer of the six rules above, Tim Crow. Speaking of Newcastle United’s naming rights offer as a whole, he remarked:

“They’ve driven a cart and horses through the golden rules,” also saying of the deal offered:

“I’d be very surprised if any brand came forward, and if any of my clients asked me for my opinion I’d advise them in the strongest possible terms not to.”

In conclusion, after all that, this plan of Mike Ashley’s seems to be so poorly conceived it beggars belief. It’s so bad it’s almost as if Mike Ashley wants it to fail. With the unnecessary and even counterproductive “showcase” idea (which has not been necessary for any previous naming rights deals), if it fails there will only be one winner, Sports Direct. They will continue to enjoy a unique privilege, having the full naming rights to one of the country’s premier stadiums without actually paying a penny for it.

PS: After writing all of the above, a completely unsubstantiated story by James Richardson has appeared in The Express. It “reveals” that Ashley is currently in talks with a host of suitors, mostly Americans including Nike. It claims that Ash;ey is seeking £10 million for a stadium AND shirt deal, with Northern Rock using a get out clause to exit their deal prematurely in the last few days. As I mentioned above, it’s completely unsubstantiated and looks like a bit of a “wrong un”. You never know though. Time will tell.

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avatar NUFCBlog Author: workyticket workyticket has written 1048 articles on this blog.

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23 Responses to “Why renaming St James’ Park won’t work (except for Sports Direct)”

  1. 1
    avatar Dani M. says:

    Great article, Worky. Quality stuff indeed.

  2. 2
    avatar Blaydonson says:

    After all the clabbers when is Ashley re-naming the Managing Director?

  3. 3
    avatar UTD111 says:

    Excellent article. “Mike Knows Best” is the way Ashley tends to run his businesses. He’s been successful in his T-shirt sales business but has allegedly left a few casualties along the way.
    Whether his latest attempt to stick 2 fingers up at conventional wisdom will also be successful remains to be seen. It will largely depend on whether barrow boy business practices can continue to be applied to a famous football club.

  4. 4
    avatar geordiedug says:

    worky ya fingers need rest!

    however to the man with the cash renaming makes sense coz he can sell the whole stadium package! and if he cant well we are stuck with it!

    simple as that mate!

  5. 5

    Cracking post. This was always going to be hard sell to fans and, judging by the opinions of marketers quoted in this post, it looks like it will be a hard sell to sponsors too.

  6. 6
    avatar Andy Mac says:

    Havent you got a spell checker WT ? :)

  7. 7
    avatar Marveauxless says:

    from the article:

    “from a sponsor’s point of view, why should they pay millions for the privilege of putting up with all the baggage from your flawed concept when they could find a less controversial sponsorship opportunity elsewhere?”

    I think the reason why Ashley named it after Sports Direct for the time-being is so that Sports Direct would take the brunt of the back-lash so, that when a new sponsor comes along, there will be significantly less controversy and therefore, they’ll be more likely to invest.

    Everyone’s hatred will still be aimed at Ashley whilst the new sponsors will slip under the radar.

  8. 8

    Marveauxless, TBH Ashley doesn’t strike me as the altruistic sort.

  9. 9
    avatar Nyemasem says:

    I don’t agree with the change of name.st.james has a lot of history n memories so the name shouldn’t be changed.

  10. 10
    avatar workyticket says:

    Marveauxless says:

    November 13, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    “I think the reason why Ashley named it after Sports Direct for the time-being is so that Sports Direct would take the brunt of the back-lash so, that when a new sponsor comes along, there will be significantly less controversy and therefore, they’ll be more likely to invest.

    Everyone’s hatred will still be aimed at Ashley whilst the new sponsors will slip under the radar.”

    Marveauxless, Is that the reason why he’s covered the whole of St James’ Park in Sports Direct signs too, and drapes huge Sports Direct banners over empty seats during games and so on? ;-)

  11. 11
    avatar workyticket says:

    Marveauxless, Do you also think that it’s a wise idea to show any potential sponsors how vitriolic the response to an SJP namechange would be in advance? It soulds like a rather ill conceived idea to me.

  12. 12
    avatar workyticket says:

    Hugh de Payen says:

    November 13, 2011 at 8:58 am

    “judging by the opinions of marketers quoted in this post, it looks like it will be a hard sell to sponsors too.”

    Hugh, the people quoted in the story are the people people potential sponsors will ask for advice on whether it would be a good idea or not, so it will be a very hard sell judging by their responses!

  13. 13
    avatar chuck says:

    Yes this phenomena, having began here in the US is something we are familiar with.
    For the most part, the re-naming for corporate groups has been limited to mostly new stadiums, perish the thought for instance of the new Yankee Stadium, being anything but
    Yankee Stadium.
    And i would assume the same should apply to such names as White Heart Lane, Anfield, Old Trafford and certainly St. James Park.
    Stadiums that have existed in the same footprint (though rebuilt over time) for over a hundred years.
    Look in Arsenals case, where a change of location is involved and a completely new stadium is built, it would be difficult to argue against a change of name, especially when it’s accompanied by a nice piece of change.
    My question is what kind of owner is this, obviously one who cares little about the club’s history it’s fans or traditions.
    One who appears dedicated to one goal, profit !
    And has little regard regard for anything else.
    Unfortunately we are stuck with him and his cohorts.
    I can only suggest that if a deal goes through, the fans should begin a tradition of chanting “St James”! prior to the start of both periods.

  14. 14
    avatar workyticket says:

    chuck says:

    November 13, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    ” And i would assume the same should apply to such names as White Heart Lane, Anfield, Old Trafford and certainly St. James Park.”

    Chuck, Spurs and Liverpool will have to get new stadiums soon as their current ones are far too small, especially White Hart Lane which is smaller than Anfield. This will open up some far less controversial stadium naming oppotunities.

    The thing is that when they’re highly controversial, it’s hardly worth it financial terms once you see how much clubs get for it. The Man City one is an obvious exception because it’s obviously a ruse to get round financial fair play regulations. But as I suggested in the piece, clubs get far more even for shirt sponsorship than they do for stadium renames. This being the case, the absence of a new shirt sponsor may be more important to the club financially than than the stadium naming thing, which just makes the ditching of all that tradition all the more more stupid and insulting.

  15. 15
    avatar chuck says:

    Workey
    Sure agree, it only causes controversy and resentment.
    The fact is shirt’s are of more value, because no one lookas at signs around stadiums (the exception being the sign above St James east stand, which is pretty hard to miss)
    As for shits , they are on display wherever the club plays, not only at home and constantly in your face.

  16. 16
    avatar Paul in Hollywood says:

    My take on the whole thing is that the world as we once knew it has changed. Most fans of Manchester United have never stepped foot in England, let alone Old Trafford. With NUFC, what was once a team of local lads playing for a few quid has become mainly a bunch of foreigners half of whom struggle to speak the native tongue, let alone with a Geordie accent, earning in a week what most of us earn in a year. Clinging to the past is futile. Mike Ashley wants to appeal to a global market and that means playing a slicker, faster corporate game. He clearly understands it, hence his astonishing wealth. Toon fans wanting all things to stay the same are being far too provincial, or if that’s what they want, then we will not achieve the heights of footballing success. Times change, and with them their demands. If in doubt, ask Confucius who said as much 2,500 years ago.
    And with that said, in our hearts it is and will remain St. James’ Park, but that name will die with us. Long live the Toon!

  17. 17
    avatar workyticket says:

    chuck says:

    November 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm

    “As for shits , they are on display wherever the club plays”

    Aye, in the director’s box usually. :lol:

  18. 18
    avatar workyticket says:

    Paul in Hollywood says:

    November 13, 2011 at 10:15 pm

    “Most fans of Manchester United have never stepped foot in England, let alone Old Trafford…

    Clinging to the past is futile. Mike Ashley wants to appeal to a global market and that means playing a slicker, faster corporate game.”

    Aye Paul, OLD TRAFFORD, not the “Nike Superdrome” or some such thing, and there’s a very good reason for that if you read what the corporate marketing consultants had to say in my piece. It’s the same with other clubs who are much bigger and more attrative to sponsors than we are. Barcelona still play at the Camp Nou, Real Madrid still play at the Bernabeu. You seem to think that people who oppose this idea through naivety when in some cases the exact opposite is true. We just recognise a con artist’s scam when we see one. ;-)

  19. 19
    avatar Paul in Hollywood says:

    Worky, I appreciate your response, and I acknowledge your infinitely greater understanding of this situation. However, I guess to continue to play devil’s advocate here, the three clubs you mention already had international stature. As much as I love the Toon, we do not. Maybe, just maybe, Mike Ashley is leverging (?) us up to that league. Perhaps if anyone has delusions of grandeur it is not the Toon Army but Big Mike himself.

    Secondly, as much as I have railed against Mike and (the loathesome) Derek’s past actions and statements (and lack thereof), I nonetheless find that we are 3rd in the league with a highly motivated squad, our finances are in good shape and we are looking forward with tremendous promise. Therefore, I am just keeping my powder dry on this one. The Toon are not so badly off as we may sometimes imagine.

  20. 20
    avatar workyticket says:

    Paul, you’re flattering me!

    Seriously, if you measure Newcastle United’s *international stature” by their meagre achievements on the pitch in recaent times, you would certainly end up seriously underestimating it, though it has undoubtedly diminished somewhat since the days of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer, and also since Mike Ashley’s took ownership. I would say that Mike Ashley is trying to use Newcastle United’s international stature, and of course, that of the English Premiership, to leverage the international stature of Sports Direct.

    On the subject of being third at a very early stage of the Premiership, of course while it is very welcome, it means little in the grand scheme of things. Hull City were third in the Premiership at a similar stage in the season when we were relegated. They ended up almost getting relgated thamselves, and were the following season. So, as I wrote earlier, whilst it is undoubetly welcome, don’t read too much into it yet. What counts is where we are after 38 games, and how we do over the long term, season after season.

    On the subject of the finances being in good shape, as I have pointed out several times before in this ‘blog, as of the last set of published accounts, the club was actually more in debt than we were when Mike Ashley took over the club in 2007. To use the kind of terminology used by dodgy loan comapnies over here, Ashley has simply “consolidated our loans into one easy package”, Mike Ashley, and he can pull the plug on them any time he wants because it is repayable on demand at no notice. As you may know, Mike Ashley is an highly unpredictable man who can never be trusted, and that’s a worry just as our previous leveraged borrowings from outside were.

  21. 21
    avatar chuck says:

    Paul
    I think the point is always to increase revenues, of which there are a number of different ways.
    At one time it was through increased attendance, then the selling of replica shirts, caps, scarves, etc.
    Then came the buying of rights, by mainly corporate advertising, to display their names on the club strips.
    The most recent and arguably an American import, is the idea of naming new stadiums or re-naming stadiums, with the name of a corporation, airline (same thing)or in some cases the business of the owner(JCB Stadium)
    Of course in comparison with tv revenues, the amounts
    received other than from gates is negligible, but certainly welcomed by most owners, who are for the most part struggling with payrolls and the general cost’s of survival as member clubs in the EPL.
    Certain clubs, do the shirt and naming stuff well, with enormous revenues, Man. U., Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea,
    etc.
    But one has to remember these are, or at one time were, very successful clubs, who are located mostly in massive catchment areas and who’s successes over the years has brought about a large fan base outside of both their catchment area and the country in general.
    Also success in competition, brings in added tv revenue, but in turn has it’s cost, the expense of buying star players, an almost treadmill like damned if you do and damned if you don’t, success has it’s cost.
    As for NUFC, well a respected side throughout there history, with occasional success, but due to circumstance will never be a permanent top five (temporary sure) that is unless there are more spend thrift oligarchs still available waiting to throw money at the club, doubt it ?
    In which case, our great leader, will squeeze every nickel and use the club as an adjunct to his real business, even if that means changing the hundred year plus stadium name to earn a few extra quid.
    Unfortunately that’s the way it is.

  22. 22
    avatar Paul in Hollywood says:

    Worky, Chuck, thanks for the comments. I honestly don’t know what Mike Ashley’s intentions are but I would have to think that the success of one rubs off on the other. I will concede that the likes of you and I love the Toon and bleed black and white whereas Mike and Derek do not. We come from the heart – the very essence of the Toon Army – which they cannot really relate to because, it seems, that they do not bleed at all. Or if they do, $$$ flow out. A strange world.

  23. 23
    avatar Stephen C says:

    So then, since we all know what he is doing and that we are all being taken for mugs what are we going to do about it?

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