Since the start of the age of the commercialisation within football, supporters have been pretty tolerant of much of the “progress” that has been made. Sponsors names on shirts and grounds, kick-off times being switched to suit television audiences and matches being put onto pay-TV have all been tolerated when they benefitted no-one but those that stood to make a profit from it. There is, however, a line in the sand that seems beyond the pale in football in much of Britain (the Welsh Premier League seems to be an exception) comes with the naming of clubs themselves. This week, however, there has been a serious attempt to cross this line, and it came from an unexpected source.
Last year was not a particularly happy one for Stirling Albion of the Scottish League Division Two. On the pitch, they were relegated from the Scottish League First Division, whilst off it they were pursued by their local council over unpaid rates and rent at Forthbank Stadium and survived two winding up orders that were brought by HMRC over unpaid tax bills. The club is believed to be £1.5m in debt, a colossal sum of money for a club that plays its matches in front of average crowds of around 700. The club’s supporters trust launched an attempt to buy the club last year. Its first offer was refused but they plan to try again, and this time their plans involve selling the naming rights to the club.
Under plans that have already been seriously discussed with a well-known price comparison website, Stirling would change their name – and regular readers may wish to reach for a sick bag at this point – to Stirling Albion Meerkats FC for a period of five years, in return for £50,000 per year. Now, there is little doubt that £250,000 over five years would be a handy sum of money for a club like Stirling. However, the question needs to be asked of whether this complete loss of identity, this fundamental selling down the river of the very name of the club is worth anywhere near the frankly paltry sum of £50,000 per year. Llansantffraid of the Welsh Premier League were paid £250,000 to change their name to Total Network Solutions FC in 1996.
Finding something direct to correlate this amount of money with isn’t easy. Television advertising rates are at a rock bottom level at the moment – down 16% in 2009, with revenues from commercials down £175m since 2007. Prices are at their lowest rate since the 1980s. The average cost of advertising seems to be around £4.20 per 1000 viewers for a thirty second advertisement, although this varies according to the specific channel, the time that it is being broadcast, whether the commercial in question is being shown nationally or not and a host of other factors. However, this particular £50,000 per year would plant a seed of a reminder of the company in many people’s heads that isn’t available elsewhere. On websites, in newspapers and on the television, that little nudge would – assuming that the media were complicit in using the moniker – always be there. On top of that, the novelty of it all would create a wave of publicity for the sponsors – and all for less than £1,000 per week.
The trust is insistent that this deal would only last for five years, but there are no guarantees that this would be the case, and the fact that it is being countenanced in the first place indicates that if a further deal could be signed in five years’ time, then it would at least be considered. What difference, however, would it make to the club? If their current debt is £1.5m, they would need to keep a similar deal in place for thirty years in order for it to pay off their debt. This five year deal would – assuming that the club ran up no further debt, which is, of course, far from guaranteed – pay off a sixth of the total amount that they owed.
Scottish football does have a different system, however, which may be underscoring the announcement. English clubs that fail financially and fold can start at the bottom and build back up. In Scotland, there is no direct access to the Scottish Football League. If they have to drop into the junior leagues, they may never get back to where they are now. For all of this, though, it seems unlikely that the club wouldn’t be able to cut back elsewhere. If the club has been spending as heavily on wages as has been suggested elsewhere (and they are hardly struggling on the pitch – they are currently in second place in the Scottish Second Division), then these should be cut back.
It seems unlikely that such a move would be permitted by the Scottish Football Association, though, and there is precedent for it. In 1974, when works team Ferranti Thistle were allowed into the Scottish Football League, it was on condition that they changed their name to Meadowbank Thistle. Meanwhile, in England, in the early 1980s one of Jimmy Hill’s bright ideas for Coventry City was to change their name to Coventry Talbot in a sponsorship deal with the now-defunct car manufacturer but this plan was vetoed the Football League. Such precedent doesn’t apply to the naming rights for grounds, so comparisons with that are largely irrelevant.
Such a decision would rest with the supporters of the club even if the SFA were to allow it, and this seems unlikely for the forseeable future. It may be a different matter if such a tie-in could guarantee the long term future of the club but, considering the amount of money offered in this case, it seems unlikely that any such guarantee can be made and, once the name is gone, what else is there left to hawk to the highest bidder? This particular line in the sand hasn’t quite been crossed yet, but we’re edging closer and closer to it.