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Chris Evans
Online Editor

Newcastle United: Risking the wrath of a rebrand

Posted: 2nd December 2011

For the majority of Newcastle United fans, the name Mike Ashley has been off their Christmas card list for some time, and he won’t have helped his cause by renaming their beloved St James' Park … after his own company.

At 12:45pm on Saturday, the Newcastle United team will run onto the pitch at the Sports Direct Arena for the first time since the club announced the name change just under a month ago.

It only took a quick scout around a few football forums to find out how this had gone down with the St James’ Park faithful. Outraged fans accused the board of chipping away at the club’s history and selling the club’s soul, but it will be interesting to see the reactions of the fans at the game now that the dust has settled.

This weekend, Newcastle will try to compete on the pitch with Chelsea, off the pitch they can’t contend with Abramovich’s vast fortunes.

In recent weeks, Newcastle have also played the ludicrously-wealthy Manchester City, who can carry the biggest loss in English football history without batting an eyelid, and Manchester United, who have also posted record revenues recently. If the Premier League does not end up at one of these three money-spinning teams, I’ll change my name to Mr Sports Direct.

Nobody likes to admit it, but in football access to money is the key to success and Newcastle need to maximise revenues and wrangle all they can out of their assets. After all, the club reported operating losses, before player trading, of £37.7 million in 2008-09 and £35.5 million in 2009-10.

Newcastle United’s managing director Derek Llambias says the board’s aim is pure and simple, to deliver success and make the club financially self-sufficient in order to deliver that success.

He maintains that the Sports Direct Arena name is merely a temporary measure designed to “showcase the opportunity to interested parties”.

As the club’s shirt sponsorship deal with Northern Rock expires at the end of the season, potential sponsors have the opportunity to acquire both the naming rights and shirt sponsorship deals, much like Arsenal’s money-spinning deal with Emirates. Similarly Manchester City recently inked a record-breaking deal with Etihad.

Explaining the commercial decision, Llambais said: "To grow sustainably and allow us to invest in our future, we will need to rely increasingly heavily on commercial income.

"These are very difficult economic times and the board have a responsibility to maximise all revenue streams for the benefit of the Club. Stadium rebranding offers a lucrative way for clubs to secure significant additional income.

"When we initially launched our plans at the end of 2009, we invited sponsors to attach their brand to that of St James' Park. However it has become clear that in order to make the proposition as commercially attractive as possible, a potential sponsor must be given the opportunity to fully rebrand the stadium."

However, I can certainly understand the Newcastle fans’ frustrations and I would be unhappy with it happening at my club too. That’s why, for the club's bosses, it is not a decision that comes without risk.

Rebranding of a much-loved product is always difficult. Pretty much every time that the naming rights to a stadium have been sold, it has been a new one (Arsenal and Manchester City), not an existing stadium with years of history and memories of goalscorers past and present.

If there is a backlash from the fans, and Mike Ashley does not have the greatest relationship with them as it is, then there could be trouble for Newcastle and the brand that pays to be associated with it, as Dominic Curran, deputy managing director of sponsorship consultancy Synergy, told City AM.

"The reason any sponsor associates with you is to associate with your brand, and if you damage or devalue your own brand then you could lose sponsorship revenue over the long run anyway. Because it’s your brand that you’ve really got to sell.

“You’ve got to be careful because when you're buying into something like Newcastle, you’re buying into the history and local passion – you don’t want to damage that,” he said.

Axl Rose by any other name?

Earlier this year, Manchester-based 106.1 Rock Radio re-branded as Real Radio XS, much to the annoyance of some of its loyal fanbase, who wore their black and orange Rock Radio car sticker badges with pride as they drove around the M60 and beyond.

The central idea behind the decision was that Rock Radio, with its 143,000 classic rock music fans in Manchester, would benefit by being more closely associated with larger sister station Real Radio and its 472,000 adult listeners across the north west of England.

GMG Radio chief executive Stuart Taylor said: “There is a clear appetite for the music we play and these plans will give both stations the best possible chance of growth and success, provide an attractive commercial proposition for advertisers and mean that this genre of music continues to thrive in these two regions.”

I used to listen to it all the time; I don’t listen to it anymore. Even though it was just a name change. Sorry if that makes me shallow. But just as radio listeners can tune off, football fans can vote with their feet.

In a twist of fate, Newcastle United's home fixture against Chelsea is their first full-house of the season. Let's see how the paying fans respond.

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