When the story first broke that Newcastle United’s Mike Ashley had decided to sell the naming rights to St James Park, it seemed unlikely that he was doing it with the best interests of the supporters of the club at heart. However, the confirmation made this week that for the rest of this season St James Park will be known as “sportsdirect.com@St James Park” has probably hit the final nail in the coffin into the idea that he is now doing everything that he can to upset and anger them. There can be almost no other explanation for the decision.
The economic argument that clubs benefit from selling stadium naming rights doesn’t seem to apply in this case, unless Ashley is considering the £20m that he promised to put into the club to be the payment for it. What his motives could be for this other than sticking it to his critics can only be speculated. If he is doing it as a demonstration of how beneficial such a deal would be to take up an option on the deal from the start of next season, then he should probably reconsider. What benefit a company could gain from being associated with such a universally unpopular marketing move, after all, is open to question.
This may be behind the decision of Adidas, Newcastle’s kit suppliers for several years, to announce publically that they had not been approached having the stadium called “Adidas Park” and that if they were approached they would reject the offer. Newcastle’s Chief Executive, Derek Llambias, said with almost depressing predictability, “It’s adding to it, and if it brings in a good chunk of money to the club, that goes straight to the team, then do you know what, it’s a revenue we should look at”. In other words, don’t worry about the loss of your heritage and tradition – the money will spent on even more over-priced players who will probably flatter to deceive.
What is most noticeable about this decision is that it follows a trend which seems to back the now widespread whisper upon Tyneside that Ashley may be deliberately sabotaging the club. After all, he put the club up for sale quite a while ago but when a serious offer came in (and at a price that was so over-valued that it came close to his frankly ludicrous £100m price) it was suddenly withdrawn from sale. The reaction to the initial announcement that the club was to sell the naming rights to the stadium from the end of this season was furious: what other explanation could be given for then, considering how hated he is in that part of the world, then naming the stadium after his own company?
And then the cherry on the cake is expecting supporters of a club that was relegated from the Premier League with one of the highest wage budgets to be placated by saying that the money from the sale – which it would to defy belief to suggest that he doesn’t – on more players! It’s difficult not to doff one’s cap to what is starting to look like quite a sophisticated sense of humour. However, the truth is a little less palatable. If Ashley is doing this to anger the supporters, then as the ultimate owner of Newcastle United, he could theoretically make things even worse for them if he wanted to.
Newcastle United are at home against Peterborough United on Saturday. It will interesting to see whether the fans pack St James Park out to make their protest or stay away in the hope that empty seats might jolt some sense into him. Considering that their last two wins in the league against Doncaster Rovers and Sheffield United were scrambled, messy affairs would seem to indicate that their automatic promotion back into the Premier League is far from a done deal just yet, and we have still to see how Chris Hughton pans out as manager in the long term, in spite of his encouraging start. Perhaps Mike Ashley should stop for a moment that if he desists from what seems to be his ongoing mission to turn Newcastle United into a living circus with a football team attached to it, perhaps everybody at the club can get on with the job of getting back into the Premier League, which, one would have thought, is what everybody associated with Newcastle United Football Club actually wants in the medium to long term.