Thursday, 10 November 2011

Football's brave new frontier

Newcastle United has just announced that St. James' Park (which is next to a real park, with actual cows painted black and white to match the team's colours) is to be renamed after its owner's company: the Sports Direct Arena. For some reason, this has caused more grumbling than Arsenal, Manchester City and Lansdowne Road all being renamed in the pursuit of cold hard cash.

Naming rights to this NUFC fan's belly are still available

It bothers me because football clubs are the quintessence of real places: usually founded by local groups of enthusiasts and often staying in the heart of their communities. When clubs are taken over by financial speculators or rich men looking for a plaything, they start to become 'non-places': signified by names which are adverts and identical architecture. My own club fell victim to this in the early 90s: Stoke played at the Victoria Ground, a picturesque but semi-derelict stadium: now it's at the Britannia, named after the building society which was hurriedly taken over by the Co-op (with whom I bank) before it went bust. The new ground is exactly as you'd imagine: a smaller version of the same design you get everywhere else.

The reason for all this is - obviously - capitalism and its discontents. Corporations have (or had) the money, but they lacked one thing: warm fuzzy feelings. What they want to buy is our emotions, and there's no surer way, they thought, to make a community love a company than through its local football team. So they buy the naming rights and help build a stadium. Ironically, this is where it all goes wrong for the company and the club. Fans don't love companies - they're either indifferent, or hostile to an important part of their culture being wiped out for temporary financial gain. The stadium, too, becomes a symbol of rootless capital, rather than a palimpsest of the local.

Look at these:

The first one is Craven Cottage, Fulham's ground. It's cute, individual (especially now there's a gilt Michael Jackson statue outside) and distinctive. It's probably a financial headache for the owners and a firetrap.  The second one is the Britannia: it could be anywhere, and is in fact perched on former wasteland miles from anywhere, virtually inaccessible on foot and strangled by dual carriageways. Neither the clubs nor the companies get it: the sponsors haven't bought affection - the clubs have sold it. Sponsor names dissolve the bonds between a club and its fans. Not that the owners care: the advertising to distant viewers is far more important than the affection of local supporters.


Anonymous said...

One day somebody will mention Newcastle without using a photo of a fat topless man to illustrate their argument.

The Plashing Vole said...

And that will be a sad day. If it's any consolation, virtually every Stoke fan at the Tel Aviv match was big, fat and topless, despite the worst rain I've seen at a footy match.