Timing, they say, is everything, and if there is anything to this, then Mike Ashley might just be considered a genius on a par with Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. After all, with a team that had slipped into a Champions League place whilst barely disturbing the radar of the press, there was a real danger that some degree of harmony may break out at Newcastle United. St James Park is one of the Premier League’s perennial potential flashpoints, a thirty-eighth parallel at which the weapons are bed spreads and spray cans, and a place at which a sense of detente had, of late, come to be in the air. With the immaculately provocative flourish of a matador, though, Ashley has lifted the red rag again and waved it in the face of the supporters of the club that he owns.
The disquiet is, of course, nothing to do with what is going on regarding the teams performance on the pitch at the moment. Alan Pardew’s team may not be the most aesthetically pleasing to watch in the Premier League at the moment, but it has been grinding out result after result and has outperformed the pre-season expectations of even the most myopic of Newcastle supporters. The cause of this disquiet is Ashley’s decision to rename St James Park as “The Sports Direct Arena”. It is a naming rights decision that has been on the cards for a while. The ground has been labouring under the cumbersome moniker of “Sports Direct @ St James Park” for a couple of years now, and, crucially, the first part of thus unwieldy name has been singularly ignored by the media, whose collaboration in such rebranding is essential if the project us to be commercially successful.
But how successful would such a naming rights deal be? The clubs managing director, Derek Llambias states that it would allow the club to “grow sustainably and invest in our future”, and that it will “showcase the opportunity to interested parties”. The UEFA financial fair play regulations are, of course, looming, but this agreement with Sports Direct – founder and deputy chief executive: Mike Ashley – will not earn the club any money. As such, it is easy to see how some could be persuaded that this deal has been thought up as a way of getting free publicity for the owners company rather than for the benefit of the club.
The anecdotal evidence is that supporters react better to naming rights being sold for new grounds than to sponsors names being appended existing grounds with a culture and heritage of their own. We could compare, for example, the adoption of The Emirates Stadium by Arsenal supporters with that of, say, Bradford City’s Valley Parade (note somewhat excruciating Coral Windows Stadium). This is an issue that seems likely to continue to vex football’s traditionalists, and it is something that will continue to grow. It us important to also bear in mind that the sponsors are unlikely to be bothered by what the supporters call the ground (and it is difficult to believe that supporters of other clubs – excepting, perhaps, those of Sunderland or Middlesbrough – would use the sponsors name either), in comparison with how it is referred to in the media.
This, perhaps, is where any supporters looking to protest may opt to employ a little lateral thinking. If Sky Sports and the BBC use the name, it may well be considered a commercial success. If Newcastle supporters can successfully lobby media corporations to not use the name, however, it’s attractiveness to potential sponsors may start to wear off. Whether they would care about this is, of course, far from certain, but the popularity of any news organisation that continued the traditional name for the ground would surely soar in that part of the world, for it is this sort of exposure that lesds companies to offer millions of pounds in exchange for sponsorship. The club may, in such a situation, choose to retaliate by sanctioning the media, but again it seems unlikely that the sort if attention that such a battle would undoubtedly attract would be the sort of thing that corporate partners would wish to be associated with.
Perhaps the most insulting aspect of this announcement for Newcastle United supporters is the lingering suspicion that Ashley is out solely for himself and is not interested in their interests or the heritage of Newcastle United Football Club. The team itself has its most testing period of the season coming up, with away matches against Manchester City and Manchester United, before a returning to St James Park for a home match against Chelsea on the third of December. If it doesn’t seem unreasonable to surmise that any distraction to the team itself can only have a negative effect, and if there is a crackle of dissent still hanging in the air on Tyneside in three weeks time, how might this affect the players as they approach the end of three very difficult matches? Modern players are schooled in how to shut out background noise when they are playing, but there is no way to understand this situation which indicates that it will help the mood at the club in the immediate future.
Derek Llambias states that “We are now actively seeking a long-term sponsor wishing to acquire full naming rights for the stadium”. We shall see how that pans out. Mike Ashley, though remains an enigma. Under his stewardship, the club has stabilised itself and is on a run of form that it hasn’t seen for some considerable time. The decision to make this announcement, however, can only lead one to the conclusion that he is either stupid or simply doesn’t care what the supporters think of him. It is tempting to suggest that, because of manner in which he built up a business from nothing, that it cannot be the former. That he should choose to make this public at this of all times, when Newcastle United have three matches coming up against the Premier League’s elite and with the knowledge that a couple of wins could even bring the club something approaching the modern holy grail for a middle-ranking Premier League club – a genuine, sustained shot at a place in the Champions League.
It has been suggested that Newcastle supporters should boycott St James Park on account of this. Whether such a radical protest would work is, of course, open to question. How many Newcastle supporters feel so strongly about the matter that they would do so? Considering that season tickets have been paid for and the main commercial benefits from such a naming rights deal would come from media mentions and the like, would the club feel that the gains were worth the short-term costs. One of the defining features of the Ashley era at St James Park has been a bullish obstinacy, and it seems difficult to imagine that the club would cede to supporter pressure. What else, though, are they to do? If supporters of the club do feel strongly about this subject, they can either not protest and allow the corporate steam-roller to change the name of their club, or they can have a go at protesting in the knowledge that, even if their protests fail, they have tried.
That commercial imperative should come to trump history and heritage is no great surprise in modern football, and the seeds of this slap in the face for Newcastle supporters were sewn a couple of years ago. What, though, does it tell us about Mike Ashley, the man who embarrassed himself in trying to prove that he was a “real” fan? We can also look at the absurd timing of the announcement and wonder what that says about him, his attitude towards the success of the team and its supporters? Most of the answers that we can draw from this PR disaster, though, are little more than speculation. Perhaps most worrying of all for supporters of the club, though, is the question of what might come next – what else can be sold (or given away) and could there be an even less appropriate time to do so than now? The truce between Mike Ashley and the supporters had been an uneasy one and it may well reignite. If or when it does, he will only have himself to blame.
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