St James’ Park no more

The historic name of Newcastle’s ground, St.

The historic name of Newcastle’s ground, St. James’ Park, has been dropped by the club, although no doubt it will continue to be used by fans.   It will be called the Sport Direct arena after owner Mike Ashley’s company as an interim measure.  Indeed, this has been its official title since 2009 but it has not been used very much.   Work is already under way to remove signage although this may not be completed by the time of the home game with Chelsea on 3 December.

St James’ Park metro station is named after the club and is decorated in black and white to reflect the team’s colours.   However, it is thought unlikely that the terminus of the Yellow Line would be named after the new sponsors.   Arsenal did get Gillespie Road tube station re-named after them in the inter-war period, but there has been no talk of re-naming Holloway Road Emirates.   Indeed, it would not be appropriate to name a tube station in such a way (until such time as the sponsorship rights are sold so that Marble Arch could become Marks and Spencers).

The club has been trying to sell naming rights to the stadium for some time.   It thinks it could realise at least £8m and possibly £15m a year and hopes that having the stadium named in this way will make it easier to showcase it to prospective purchasers.   Indeed, the name ‘arena’ has a strong American connotation.

The £2m a year shirt deal with Northern Rock expires at the end of this year so one possibility is a combined shirt and sponsorship deal.    However, one challenge is the image of the city itself.   The city centre of Newcastle these days is thriving and attractive: I am going there next week and I always enjoy my visits.   Unfortunately, particularly abroad, the perception may not have caught up with the changed reality.

This move will not go down too well with fans.   Indeed, one fan texted Radio 5 to say thart Mike Ashley had scored a public relations own goal after relations with fans had started to improve.   However, chief executive Derek Llambias said ‘we will take the hit of their criticism and anger because it will be good for the club.’

The dilemma that Newcastle United faces is that the club has the third best stadium in the country and the third biggest average attendance, but does not generate revenues that would allow it to mount a long-term challenge to the top clubs, notwithstanding its current league position.   

In particular, the brand does not have strong recognition in key markets such as Asia and the overseas fan base is largely an expatriate one and does not generate revenues which come anywhere close to those of Manchester United.

The name of the Emirates stadium has become well established, in part because it involved a ground move.  League 1 Chesterfield sold their naming rights when they moved to the b2net stadium.  Manchester City’s Etihad stadium is part of the development of a sporting campus, although some critics see it as an attempt to evade Uefa’s financial fair play rules.  

Manchester United and Chelsea have not felt it necessary to sell the naming rights to their stadium, but they have income from many other sources.    Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay said this week that he was confident of the club securing a naming rights deal for Stamford Bridge before next season.    Spurs have made it clear that they will drop the name White Hart Lane if the redevelopment of the ground goes ahead.