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Can Corporate Branding in Football Be a Poison Chalice?

There’s an almighty storm brewing between some football clubs and their supporters at present, sparked by perhaps one of the biggest PR disasters in recent sporting memory. In October, the much-maligned owner of Newcastle United FC, Mike Ashley, announced that he wanted to sell naming rights to the club’s home, St James’ Park, in order to maximise the club’s commercial revenues. That in itself wasn’t disastrous, but renaming the ground to his own company’s name to show how the naming rights could work has infuriated fans and turned a once great club into a bit of a laughing stock. After all, the sportsdirect.com @ St James’ Park Stadium doesn’t really have much of a ring to it, does it?

Since then, both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have announced that they are considering selling naming rights to their stadiums, with varying responses. In the case of Chelsea this would involve renaming Stamford Bridge, the club’s home for over 100 years, and supporters aren’t happy about it. But in the case of Tottenham, the naming rights would be sold when it builds a completely new stadium (pictured above), in the same way as Arsenal and Bolton Wanderers have done. History shows that such naming rights are generally accepted by fans.

So why is corporate branding such a PR travesty for Newcastle United but accepted by Arsenal? In the first instance, the name counts for a lot. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium or Bolton’s Reebok Stadium work. They’re simple and the brands themselves are inoffensive and suited to the clubs they sponsor. On the other hand, the sportsdirect.com @ St James’ Park Stadium is not only a mouthful, but it also further ties an owner and a brand to the club that fans feel has already gone a long way toward destroying it. Even as a neutral, you can’t help but feel that the sportsdirect.com @ St James’ Park Stadium is particularly ugly. It feels like Ashley is kicking supporters when they’re down, and even MP David Clelland has called for him to reconsider his decision.

In PR terms, reputation is everything. It’s just a shame that Newcastle’s owner seems intent on destroying the club’s…

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