Monday, November 9, 2009
[In the week that Newcastle United consolidated its position at the top of the Championship with a 3-1 victory over Peterborough, club owner Mike Ashley announced he was renaming our historic venue "sportsdirect.com@stjamespark". It caused a seismic revolt on Tyneside]
The most dramatic moment during Newcastle United’s mauling of Peterborough on Saturday was when some fans produced a large banner proclaiming “notwanted@StJamesPark” and pointed it at the directors’ box. The cheers and laughter from the crowd soon turned to angry boos as an official was sent to confiscate the offending banner and remove the guilty from their seats.
His decision to offer up the revered name of St James’ Park for commercial sponsorship was unpopular enough: the announcement that for the time being he’s going to call it the “sportsdirect.com@StJamesPark Stadium” has brought the club into national ridicule. During the game radio commentators were heard reporting from the “Hereinthepouringrain@StJamesPark” Stadium.
Mind you, the banner incident did cheer up a dull second half. Unlike David Haye’s extraordinary victory over the Goliath Nikolay Valuev, the underdogs of Peterborough never stood a chance. At one point I thought they’d accidentally left their 8-year-old mascot on the pitch: it turns out they have a very small captain called Dean Keates.
A few days after Ashley dropped his bombshell, one of the richest clubs in the land announced that it would also be offering naming rights to its ground. Unlike Ashley, Chelsea’s chief executive handled the PR well, saying that “retaining Stamford Bridge’s heritage is paramount to considering such a move” and that any deal would have to be with “the right partner”.
Sponsorship isn’t just about money. In my own business of television, the sponsor’s credit at the front of the show has to fit in with the image of the programme, just as the sponsor uses the content of the show to enhance its own product. Newcastle United’s partnership with Northern Rock and before that with Scottish & Newcastle was totally appropriate. What happens if London Pride makes Ashley an offer he can’t refuse? Or if the fans at the Stadium of Light clubbed together to buy SunderlandFC-Are-A-League-Above-You@StJamesPark?
If he really wants to add a few bob to the bottom line, why doesn’t Ashley nurture his biggest asset, namely 40,000 captive consumers? While the entire leisure industry has hauled itself into the 21st century, why are football grounds run as if they are still in the 1980s?
My season ticket is in a part of the ground with a facility grandly called the 1892 Bar. You mingle with all types in there, and most of us have paid up to £900 a year for the privilege. So why does the club assume that we only want to spend a couple of quid in the interval on a sausage roll or a steak pie of dubious provenance? Sure, for many people pies and football go together. But if there were a decent alternative, surely some of the bankers, lawyers and entrepreneurs in there would happily cough up?
As it is, it’s quite hard to spend any money at all in the ground. This week many of us who ordered their half-time drinks found they hadn’t been set out by the interval, so we angrily queued up to complain. Unless you leave your seat well before half time, there’s no way you can get a hotdog by the start of the second half because the café service is so poorly organised that the queue snakes on forever. Elsewhere in the ground, friends tell me there’s scarcely any service at all.
Surely just investing in one catering expert at let’snotbothertotrythefood@StJamesPark might pay for quite a few extra players. Indeed, if Ashley could persuade every spectator to spend just two pounds a week extra on improved services, he would immediately pocket the £2million he wants without wrecking the heritage of our stadium’s proud name.