Why not just call it the Blub-o-drome?

Yes, Sportsdirect.com@St James Park is a rubbish name for a stadium, but why are Geordies really upset about it?

Duleep Allirajah

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So the comedy continues on Tyneside. Messiahs hired and fired, silly money wasted on useless players, the farcical appointment of Joe Kinnear, the panic recruitment of Alan Shearer, relegation from the Premier League, an aborted attempt to flog the club. And now, to cap it all, the stadium renamed against the wishes of almost every sentient creature of Tyneside. It’s enough to make a grown man weep (and God knows, Geordies don’t need much encouragement).

Mike Ashley, as we all know, isn’t the most popular man on Tyneside. Watching a recent Newcastle game on TV, all I could hear from the Toon Army was chorus after chorus of ‘You fat cockney bastard, get out of our club’. Suffice to say, Ashley has long since abandoned his populist routine of rubbing shoulders with the fans in a replica shirt.

So why, if you are cockney non-grata in the North East, would you add insult to injury by announcing that you’re hawking off the name of the stadium to the highest bidder? And why, when no mug punter has shown any interest in buying the naming rights, would you rebrand the stadium after your own sportswear business? It’s a bloody stupid name, too. Sportsdirect.com@St James Park. Is it a football stadium or an email address? Sports Direct isn’t exactly the Rolls Royce of brands either. It just sounds cheap and nasty (though some might say that’s quite fitting).

If a club is trying to attract new investment I can see the logic of selling the naming rights. An American NBA team, the New Jersey Nets, will earn a cool £225million from the sale of the naming rights to their new stadium, the Barclay Centre. Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks aims to raise £250million by selling the naming rights to the club’s new ground. But what does Newcastle United get out of its new stadium? Nothing but ridicule. Maybe it’s Ashley’s idea of a joke. His revenge on the fans for all the vilification. Mind you, if it was intended as a joke, then I can think of one or two more suitable names. The Theatre of Delusions, the Blub-o-drome, the Stadium of Tears – the comic possibilities are endless.

Inevitably, Ashley’s latest stunt has backfired badly. The Newcastle supporters trust has launched a drive to raise cash to buy the club. Former chairman Freddie Shepherd has denounced the naming rights sale. ‘I appreciate we are living in a commercial world’, he said. ‘But there are some things money can’t buy.’ Even marketing experts have questioned the wisdom of the decision. ‘The Newcastle stadium renaming is a joke’, said Stephanie Branston of the sponsorship consultancy Synergy. ‘For a club to sell that name is like selling its soul. The deal Newcastle have just done comes across as an act of desperation.’

Selling the naming rights to football stadiums isn’t new. A number of recently built stadiums, notably the Emirates, the Reebok Stadium, the Kingston Communications (KC) Stadium, the JJB Stadium (now the DW stadium), the Ricoh Arena, and the Walkers Stadium have all been named after corporate sponsors. Does a change of name matter? In one sense it doesn’t. Even when a stadium is legally re-christened there is no guarantee that the official name will be used. Many Arsenal fans, for example, refer to the Emirates Stadium as ‘Ashburton Grove’ or simply ‘The Grove’. Leicester fans protested against the original proposal to name their new ground the Walker’s Bowl. In order to placate the fans the name was changed to the Walker’s Stadium but some fans insist on referring to the ground as ‘Filbert Way’.

However, while a stadium’s official title might never be used, a change of name has huge symbolic significance. Certain football traditions are considered sacred: the stadium name, the team colours, the club crest. Club owners risk the wrath of supporters if they dare meddle with these hallowed traditions. It’s heresy. A Faustian pact.

Well, not necessarily. Traditions aren’t always inviolable. Leeds United played in blue and white stripes until the 1930s and then in various combinations of blue and gold. In 1961, however, manager Don Revie made a radical break with tradition when, inspired by Real Madrid, he introduced the all-white kit. Are any Leeds fans campaigning for a return to the more traditional gold and blue kits? Of course not.

Similarly, when Malcolm Allison took charge at Crystal Palace in 1973 he undertook a radical rebranding of the club. He changed the club’s nickname from the Glaziers to the Eagles and replaced the old claret and blue colours with the iconic sash kit – all-white with a red and blue sash. The rebrand was clearly inspired by US sport but, at the time, there wasn’t the same antipathy to Americanisation that we see today. I know one old-skool Palace fan who insists that the club’s rightful colours are claret and blue but he’s pretty much a lone voice. If asked what the definitive Palace kit is, most fans would vote for the sash kit or the Barcelona-style red and blue stripes which Palace adopted in the 1980s.

So, traditions can be ditched. Modernisation is possible. The fans won’t always oppose it. The all-white outfit is regarded as the definitive kit by Leeds fans even though it’s a relatively recent innovation. Why? Because Leeds enjoyed their greatest period of success with the modern white kit. The same can’t be said for Newcastle’s new stadium name. It doesn’t evoke a glorious era, nor does it honour a Geordie hero. Quite the opposite. Mike Ashley is a hate figure on Tyneside. Everything he touches turns to shit. A stadium named after his own company simply rubs the fans noses in it.

But what if Mike Ashley hadn’t screwed up so spectacularly? What if, under his chairmanship, the club had actually won trophies (bear with me here; you have to use your imagination)? What if Ashley had delivered glory rather than ridicule? He could have called the stadium whatever he wished. Kiss My Fat Cockney Arse Arena. And no one would have objected.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist.

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spiked-issue: Sport

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