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During the summer, Southampton came quite close to tkaing a sponsor’s name. As Neil Cotton reports, the relationship between company patronage and football isn’t as simple as saying “companies bad, tradition good”, but where should we draw the line in the sand?
For many of us this will take the merest shuffle of the imagination rather than a salmon like leap. Imagine the Hawaiian sized wave of debt you have been surfing for the past few years is threatening to engulf you; pushing you under the surface with a force more violent that a night on the town with a pack of premier league superstars. Just before it all turns dark however, you are offered a life-buoy. All your debts will be cleared what’s more you will receive a generous amount of cash to stick in your back pocket. The catch… you must give up your name changing it to that of a prominent brand. How much is your name worth to you? Would giving up your name mean giving up part or all of your identity too?
This is a dilemma wrestled with by supporters of Southampton FC as their summer soap opera took its bleakest turn. Following the crumbling of the Matt Le Tissier linked Pinnacle bid rumours emerged of another bid believed by some fans to be linked to the Red Bull empire. This was to prove wrong, but in such times rumours can grow wings and internet talk soon abounded of the pros and cons of ‘Red Bull Saints.’ Ironically in better times the hostile response of supporters to the corporate branding of the long-promised new stadium
had forced the club into a u-turn. Initially unveiled as the “Friends Provident Stadium”, St Mary’s was hastily added to head off a revolt. However, faced with extinction the views expressed by many supporters
suggested they were happy to trade naming rights in exchange for the clubs survival.
There is a definite logic in this argument. After all aren’t both fans and brand united in their desire for success and aside from the fact that the Saints red and white would fit snugly with the Red Bull brand corporate patronage is not as new as we would like to imagine. The “P” in PSV Eindhoven stands for Philips; as in the Dutch electrical giants and in Russia car manufacturer Zil has had a close association with a number of clubs. Closer to home on the east side of Southampton VT FC of the Zameretto league have long been associated with the shipbuilder Vosper Thornycroft. Despite the shipyard relocating along the coast the links remain with the club changing their name to VT FC in the 2002/03 season to reflect the name change in their parent company. Further down the pyramid many ‘works’ teams, providing facilities and opportunities for young players, owed their existence to the support of their corporate patrons. If anything these type of clubs are a dying breed their support choked off by de-industrialisation. Clubs such as Pirelli General FC who played in the Hampshire League are sadly typical in quietly folding shortly after the imposing factory
buildings were torn down to become a new housing estate.
Corporate patronage may also be far preferable to other ownership and financing options; a quick glance along the south coast revealing what appears a fate far worse than ‘Red-Bull Saints.’ But surely something would be lost in fusing a brash, global brand, with all its focus-grouped values and marketing spin, to a football club with a long and proud history. Indeed Paul Joyce points out in When Saturday Comes (WSC Nov 09) that before transforming SSV Markranstradt into RB Leipzig the Austrian corporate giants overtures were rejected by supporters of Schasen Leipzig who cited the loss of tradition as being a price they were unprepared to pay. This stance looks even wiser as the newly re-branded club have also, he reports, attracted widespread hostility which has included direct action targeting the pitch with weed-killer and the players with bottles.
Such reaction appears extreme given the decades long creeping commercialisation of the game. From the first logo stitched across virgin club colours to the latest sale of ground naming rights clubs have increasingly snuggled up to brands with only occasional opposition. Replacing, or attaching the name of a global super-brand to a clubs name however, is one incursion too far into the realms of the sacred. For followers of the game this presents a high-ground rallying point for creating a barricade against the ever reaching hand of the market. A club should be a focus of shared history, memory, dreams and emotions. Following a should also be about being part of a community, feeling a connection with the people stood next to you at the ground, and a thread connecting you with the person looking out
for the score on a TV screen, or in a newspaper on the other side of the world. Brands, especially super-brands, by their nature harness and transform these feelings to create their own mythology which is then used to generate profit. Brands, in other words, are not neutral; they actively seek attention, bask in reflected glory and feed on the positive characteristics of the people or institutions they attach themselves to discarding them when they are no longer required by or suited to the brand.
Perhaps the final words on this should rest with Karl Rudziak, as recorded in the National Portrait Gallery, the artist who painted the portrait of one John Anthony Portsmouth Football Club Westwood. During the sittings, Rudziak came to understand that Westwood’s tattoos and costume were not simply an attention-seeking display but a “way of externalising his deep passion for Portsmouth FC and reflecting his inner self.” For many supporters Westwood is a representative of an extreme polar end of fandom. But even a Saints fan can understand the passion he feels for his club. For Westwood the club is such a core part of his identity he has altered his name – effectively rebranding himself. Would John Anthony Red Bull Pompey Westwood sound the same?
Ian began writing Twohundredpercent in May 2006. He lives in Brighton. He has also written for, amongst others, Pitch Invasion, FC Business Magazine, The Score, When Saturday Comes, Stand Against Modern Football and The Football Supporter. Ian was the first winner of the Socrates Award For Not Being Dead Yet at the 2010 NOPA awards for football bloggers.
Interesting stuff. The renaming of my club for a sponsor is actually the only thing I can imagine that would make me stop supporting the club and walk away (even if it just adds a company name to the existing name, rather than replacing it altogether). Anyone else feel like this, or is it just me?
Great article. If Saints had to be saved, that is what is would have cost and it would have been better than disappearing.
btw you missed Red Bull Salzburg. Interestingly enough the fans were split, and the anti-RB fans eventually re-created their own football club.
I 100% agree with Pete.
The teams name is the identity, it is the area, the place your from, the only constant that you will have during your whole football supporting life. Players come and go, managers come and go, grounds change or move, the board change, even the badges change. But the only thing that should never change is the clubs name (ignoring Arsenal and briefly York to name a couple)
Another team of note was the Welsh league team Llantsantfraid, who became Total Network Solutions FC, and played Liverpool in a Champions League qualifying round in 2005. Then when TNS were incorporated into BT, the sponsorship went west, but the TNS abbreviation was now more of a brand than the team’s original name – so they renamed themselves “The New Saints”. Probably to their advantage too – the area where TNS are from is tiny, but it sustains a full-time playing staff and they’ve won the Welsh league a few times in the last couple of years.
Re: TNS – no one likes them though. In fact they’re hated in a similar fashion as MK Dons. Plastic club, with a plastic pitch. The name “The New Saints” is meaningless. The least they could do is give Oswestry their club back by changing their name to the town they now reside. Thankfully Llansantffraid have their club back.
“Thankfully Llansantffraid have their club back.” – excuse my ignorance but is there a new Llansantffraid club, back in the home town?
This is such an interesting issue and your view probably depends on which club you support and what their current financial situation is. I would take a guess that if you offered the supporters of Stockport or Portsmouth (I don’t support either) the option of becoming Red Bull Stockport or McDonalds Pompey right now they would bite your hand off as it might be the only way to save their club.
One thing not discussed in the article is whether it’s better to sell your name (and soul?) to a corporate or a faceless Middle Eastern\Asian\East European consortium. Ask a Pompey fan or a Notts County fan!
Given the choice I would take my beloved Grimsby Town being bought by a corporate because they have a vested interest in the success of the club on the pitch as that is the vehicle for their marketing. An individual can use a football club as a plaything (if they can afford it) and drop it as easy as they picked it up, a company has to consider the longer term.
Totally agree with what you say.
However, the one upside of a corporate club name is to hear Jeff Stelling’s jokes such as when TNS score a goal:
“They’ll be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight”.
How about Harry Ramsden FC for Grimsby Town? Sorry, I’m an Imp and couldn’t resist… 😉
““Thankfully Llansantffraid have their club back.” – excuse my ignorance but is there a new Llansantffraid club, back in the home town?”
Yes, Jertzee, Llansantffraid Village were formed as soon as TNS moved from Treflan (in Llansantffraid) to Oswestry. LVFC have since won a couple of promotions and are now, theoretically, two promotions away from the WPL: http://www.llansantffraidvillagefc.co.uk/