History. It’s not the hottest topic I’ll ever discuss, nor is it one I will claim to be a fountain of knowledge on. Yet history is what makes the modern Great Britain so great. It is a huge source of income for tourists visiting our shores and, at this time of year more than most, the act of remembering, honouring and paying tribute to history is a poignant reminder to the current generation that we would not be here were it not for the trials and tribulations of our predecessors.
It is this history that the modern crop of idiotic, clueless and inevitably foreign business moguls seem to disregard when buying our cherished football clubs.
Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United, yesterday exercised the power over his plaything by “renaming” St. James’ Park the “Sports Direct Arena,” almost two years to the day since his last pathetic attempt to create hollow advertising for the sports company he owns.
In 2009, it was known as “sportsdirect.com @ St. James Park,” prompting further ridicule for a club whose on the field fortunes at the time were already napalming a cataclysmic chasm on Tyneside.
What Ashley is forgetting is that a football stadium is part of a club’s identity. Kids grow up dreaming of emulating the heroes by walking out onto the hallowed turf in front of thousands of adoring fans. Standing on the carpet of pristinely prepared pasture should evoke a sense of belonging to a club and all the history that accompanies it.Which eight-year-old will be kicking a football on a North Eastern playground today boasting to his friends about how he wants to score at the Sports Direct Arena?
Ashley has ignored this attachment by trying to create his own derisory piece of history in a selfish act that will not catch on with the public, the media, the players but most importantly the fans.
Is Ashley going to personally get all the road signs in Newcastle changed himself?
Forgetting history in this way sends football spiraling into the deepest, darkest depths of Americanisation, where MLS and South American kits are adorned with sponsor logos everywhere and teams are named after stupid, quirky, irrelevant popular phrases. We’re one step away from having Starbucks Southend, Microsoft Madrid and FC Red Bull Salzburg. Oh hang on…
The key to rebranding a football stadium is to retain the history. The best way to do this is leave it be and start afresh. In other words, build a new home and create a new history.
Arsenal play at the Emirates Stadium, which is a sight to behold in itself. Leaving Highbury behind enabled that history to remain forever in that location and not dilute it with some modern fad that changes every time someone comes in with a better offer.
Arsenal fans still cling onto The Invincibles, Ian Wright and Cliff Bastin and the glorious 1930s success. That history is at Highbury and will forever remain in that stadium, under that name, regardless of the flats that now exist in its place.
Bolton Wanderers, Leicester City, Brighton, Southampton, and even Manchester City have sold the commercial rights to their fresh stadia in recent years. The key difference being that the fans have no affection, no emotion or strong attachment to these new grounds because they have no history. The respective glory years belong to pastures old and new fans will grow up calling the stadium its commercial name because they know no different.
Renaming a current football ground forgets one key detail. The fans.
Forget the extra revenue it generates, the fans are the ones who fill it up. The fans are the ones who provide the intensity, the atmosphere, the life. The fans help build the identity of a stadium and it’ll take more than a cheap advertising effort to convert them. Word of mouth amongst football fans is a powerful tool. How quickly will the die-hard Geordies adopt the new mouthful Ashley has imposed?
No matter how often or how clever a rebrand, football followers across the land are loyal creatures, often oblivious, unaware or too downright stubborn to change their ways. Who still uses the Vauxhall Conference or the Coca-Cola Championship?
Also Mr. Ashley… St. James Park isn’t an arena and never will be.
So as I prepare my notes for this weekend’s FA Cup First Round tie between Leyton Orient and Bromley, where am I headed? That’s right – The Matchroom Stadium. Or is it Brisbane Road? Oh forget it…
I am a freelance broadcast journalist for BBC Radio Kent. Please note that all views in this article are my own and are in no way representative of my employers and/or their associative partners.
Thursday, 10th November 2011