A FEW years ago, Darlington signed a naming rights deal for their ground with a local commercial radio station. As a result, their home became known as The 96.6 TFM Arena. Not surprisingly, BBC Radio Cleveland didn’t bother with the sponsor’s namecheck.
Just under 30 miles up the A1, Newcastle United have managed to come up with an even more cumbersome name for their stadium. From today until the end of the season, it will be known as sportsdirect.com @ St James’ Park by precisely no one outside of the club’s employment.
Newcastle’s embattled owner Mike Ashley isn’t the first person to name a football ground after his own sports retail company. Dave Whelan did that at Wigan a good 10 years ago. However, while some people are still calling Wigan’s ground the JJB Stadium even though the sponsorship deal expired last summer, St James’ Park’s new name is about as likely to catch on as the TFM Arena did at Darlington.
Some sponsored stadium monikers catch on, some don’t. But the golden rule is this: If your company is planning to sponsor a stadium, and you want the name to stick, get in there while it’s being built.
That’s where Whelan had an advantage over Ashley. The Wigan owner would never have succeeded with any attempt to rename Springfield Park. But he did oversee the construction of the Latics’ new home in the late 1990s, and so was able to ensure that when it opened, it was known as the JJB Stadium. Calling it the DW Stadium is still taking some getting used to.
Similarly, Arsenal’s new ground was known as Emirates Stadium when it opened, and Bolton’s home was the Reebok Stadium from the start too. It can create a bit of confusion when a stadium naming deal runs out – five years after Huddersfield’s McAlpine Stadium became the Galpharm Stadium, people still sometimes get it wrong. But it’s much easier to change the name of a ground that has only ever been known by a sponsor’s name.
Swansea were aware of this while their new home was being constructed. Club officials told the press not to refer to the ground by its informal nickname, White Rock, because they feared it would jeopardise a naming rights deal. When Swansea started playing there in 2005, it was initially known just as The New Stadium until a naming rights deal was struck with local development company Liberty Property.
Trying to stick a sponsor’s title on a ground with an established name is generally less successful. I don’t know how many Bradford fans refer to their home as the Coral Windows Stadium, but I suspect the vast majority still call it Valley Parade.
Even Darlington’s ground, which has been through six names in as many years since it opened, is still known to many as the Reynolds Arena – although given the former chairman’s colourful recent history, many Quakers fans would probably rather that wasn’t the case. (The ground’s informal name is now the Darlington Arena. Its official name is the Northern Echo Darlington Arena.)
Ashley’s decision to rechristen St James’ Park for the remainder of the season, with a view to selling the naming rights to another company during the summer, has created plenty of anger (among Newcastle fans) and hilarity (among Sunderland fans). In that sense, it just follows on from most of Ashley’s actions at Newcastle over the last 18 months.
But for all the heat the name change has created, who is honestly going to stop calling the ground St. James’ Park?