In July 2008, buoyed by their promotion into the Football League, Aldershot Town announced a new sponsorship deal. From the start of this season, EBB Paper would be the clubs new sponsors, and would have their name emblazoned across The Shots’ shirts. More importantly than this, EBB also signed a naming rights deal from Aldershot’s venerable old stadium, The Recreation Ground. From July 2008, The Recreation Ground would now be known as The EBB Stadium At The Recreation Ground”. Aldershot Town became, in one fell swoop, the club with the most mangled name in English football.
We have, over the last three decades or so, proved ourselves to be remarkably reslilient to the dubious delights of sponsorship. Kettering Town started the ball rolling in the mid-1970s with Derek Dougan’s almost quaint argument with the Football Association. Arguments over what was and wasn’t allowed continued until well into the 1980s, but we all now accept that our clubs shirts should be daubed with the logos of some company or other (except, of course, you support FC United of Manchester United, Barcelona – and they now carry the name of a charity) – or West Bromwich Albion). It’s part of life. It brings in revenue which, although it isn’t nearly as important as it was two decades or so ago, still makes a considerable difference to the financial wellbeing of our clubs. You can argue against it for aesthetic or even moral reasons, but few would argue that it’s going to go away.
Stadium naming rights are an altogether different matter. They are largely actively opposed in this country, with most people still choosing quite consciously not to use the sponsors’ name. In the case of newly-built grounds, we know no different. Stoke City have played at The Britannia Stadium for as long as it has been there, as have Bolton Wanderers at The Reebok Stadium. Even at the very highest level, as at Arsenal, most arguments about the club’s heritage went out of the window as soon as The Emirates Group waggled a massive bag of used £50 notes at them. As you move down the football food chain, however, the names (and, indeed, the value) of stadium naming rights become more obscure. Did you know, for example, that Cambridge United now play at The Trade Recruitment Stadium rather than The Abbey Stadium, or that Boston United now play at The Staffsmart Stadium rather than at York Street? Probably not, and herein lies the inner contradiction of doing this at a lower level.
Consider the reasoning behind a stadium naming rights deal from the point of view of the sponsors. For, say, Cambridge United, the sponsors want the exposure of having their name associated with a club’s stadium. Locally, they’ll get the exposure, but probably not the exposure that they want. Supporters will usually continue to use the old name and may even start to resent the company that has attached its name to the place that they consider to be their second home. Non-league ground names won’t receive much national exposure, and where a non-league ground’s name slips into the broader consciousness, it will more often that not be because it is unusual, as with Lewes’ The Dripping Pan or Clapton FC’s Spotted Dog Ground. Sometimes, the name will be so ridiculous that it gains a wider audience because it is simply unforgettably bad. Step forward York City who now play at KitKat Crescent rather than Bootham Crescent or Witton Albion, who famously played at The Bargain Booze Stadium for some years.
The last bastion of decency in English football seems to be with selling the rights to a club’s name. The only company names in English football club names are Cammell Laird and Vauxhall Motors, who are both former works’ teams. In Wales, of course, they’re less bothered about such concerns. Jeff Stelling can no longer say “They be dancing in the streets of Total Network Solutions”, because that company pulled out from Llansantfraid, and TNS now stands for “The New Saints”, but Airbus UK Broughton, Gap Connah’s Quay (not the clothing chain) and NEWI Cefn Druids. We can keep our fingers crossed that this situation in England will continue, but it would be unsurprising to see clubs start to do it. Look on the bright side, though – remember when there was talk of dividing matches up into four quarters and making the goals bigger? Sometimes we should be grateful for the fact that football hasn’t, in some respects, modernised quite as much as it could have done.