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The rise of corporate-sponsored stadiums

We’ve come a long way from football grounds being named for their local industrial links.

When Manchester United revealed last month that it had renamed one of Old Trafford’s stands to mark the 25th anniversary of Alex Ferguson’s managership, it wasn’t solely in honour of the man who has brought them so much recent success. Intentionally or otherwise, it was also a break from the tendency towards the ever-increasing commercialisation of the venues in which football is played.

The trend quickly got back on course, however, with plans, announced by Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley to rename St James’ Park the “Sports Direct Arena”.

Thoughts about the naming of football grounds had occurred to me while watching my hometown non-league side, Spennymoor Town, host Tow Law Town. The last game between the two County Durham minnows, at the end of October, took place at the Brewery Field, named for an institution that closed just over a century ago. Next March, the return clash will take place at Tow Law’s Ironworks Road, but full time was called on the ironworks itself all the way back in 1882.

This particular fixture is a singular curiosity in that both sides have homes named for industrial landmarks that have long since disappeared. But there are plenty of similar anachronisms among clubs’ names themselves too, from those still appendixed “Colliery” after long-closed mines, to Billingham Synthonia, the UK’s only team named after a fertiliser, which was once produced at the nearby ICI chemical plant.

Although the backstory behind these names may be increasingly obscure, they entrench the history not only of the clubs but of football itself, at least regionally. The industrial past that is retained in the occasional club or stadium name played an important role in making the game the dominant local pursuit. For it was not, at its inception, a working-class sport, according to Gavin Kitching, a historian originally from County Durham and now based in the University of New South Wales, Sydney, who is currently researching the social history of the North-east of England in terms of football.

“It began as a winter pastime of very upper-middle-class young men who played cricket in the summer, but who wanted a winter game to play,” he explains. Then, although rugby had arrived in the area a decade earlier, football was taken up by the workers, since its development as an exciting spectator sport had, locally, outstripped that of its egg-chasing cousin. This ultimately led to the sport’s pre-eminent status in the North-east of England, along with the clichéd stereotype of the football-mad Geordie.

Kitching says that the number of working-class clubs outnumbered the middle-class ones by 1885 and adds that, at this time, clubs really were clubs, where people paid to join and play and in which the team selections were made by committee. “One advantage of that was that when workers decided to take up soccer they didn’t have to get into the elite clubs,” he says. “They just formed a club of their own and then challenged the ‘nobs’ to a match.

“The real problem was finding a ground to play on, since the elite clubs denied them access to the cricket grounds. That was where a whole variety of people and institutions came in – industrial works with a bit of spare ground, a church or chapel with similar, even the odd well-disposed farmer or rural landlord.”

As ever, there’s a stark contrast between the lowest levels of the football pyramid and the increasing prevalence of top, premier league clubs prostituting their “naming rights” to the highest bidder. Returning to London after the non-league game mentioned above, the sight of the Emirates stadium towering over the east coast main line provided an immediate example.

Before Ashley’s newest wheeze, Manchester City were the latest of the top-flight clubs to christen their stadium with a corporate name, for Abu Dhabi’s flag-carrier Etihad Airways. In their case the July 2011 change, while a clear result of rampant capitalism, at least allowed fans to settle on one name, whereas previously they couldn’t make up their minds between the City of Manchester Stadium, its abbreviation CoMS, or “Eastlands”, for the part of town where it’s located.

“If calling it Etihad has done one thing it’s forced concentration on calling it by that one name,” says Kevin Parker, of the City’s Supporters Club. “It might’ve been different if we were still at Maine Road – I think that would have had a different effect on the fans.”

Not only this, but the sponsorship deal partly came about because of the relationship between Etihad Airways and City’s Emirati owner. Given the influx of petrodollars, it’s one that’s genuinely important to the club. “It’s why we are where we are,” says Parker – Cup winners and, at the time of writing, sitting pretty at the top of the league. Like Fergie’s stand across town, it’s marking what will become important history to future generations of supporters.

Similarly, other commercial relationships are derived from established local links: Stoke’s Britannia Stadium, for the building society that originated in nearby Leek, and Bolton’s Reebok Stadium, the sportswear company having been founded just six miles from the town.

For others, such as Newcastle, there is often no significant link between sponsors and club. This is just another way in which professional football has grown away from its origins, whereas the non-league game is still played much as it was when it was first created: by amateurs who will be back in their day jobs on the Monday, alongside the fans who were cheering them on.

Now they’re naturally more concerned with passing and scoring than casting and forging, but while the typical main occupations of the players may be different from their traditional ones, the latter are often implicitly recalled in choices of name.

For their part, after one money-induced collapse and subsequent rebirth, Spennymoor has made several attempts to revert to the name they bore before 2005, when they had the suffix “United” but have been prevented from doing so by the local and national FAs. “We’ve considered it, but there was still old debts outstanding and it wasn’t viable,” explains the club’s communications director Mike Rowcroft. Maybe they don’t need to. They’ve enough history right in front of their eyes – where many big clubs now only have pound signs.

Read "The rise of corporate-sponsored stadiums" at The Independent