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?