Shortly after arriving at Wembley before the 1975 FA Cup final, FA officials insisted that Fulham black out the manufacturer’s name on their boots (you can see their name-free boots in this clip). Obviously a great deal has changed in 37 years and today there is precious little that isn’t sponsored - even the competition now calls itself ‘the FA Cup sponsored by E.ON’.
One of the consequences of escalating wage-bills has been the rather unseemly scramble for increased commercial revenue - clubs look to exploit every avenue in order to increase income. Newcastle abandoned the name St James Park and now play at the Sports Direct Arena. Liverpool and Chelsea are discussing changing their stadium name in the search for extra revenue. Outside the Premiership, Cardiff recently announced that they have changed the traditional colour of their shirt to suit the demands and commercial aspirations of their new owners – a cosmetically simple change from Bluebirds to Red Dragons. With player wage levels being slow to react to the 'soft salary cap' envisaged under FFP, traditionally important aspects of the club’s history and culture are now considered as options for commercial exploitation.
We would probably be foolish to believe that sponsorship has evolved as far as it can do – there is probably more to come. Perhaps, for a view of the future we should look at Indian Premier League cricket – a competition which makes the FA Premier League look distinctly understated – see clip
But what happens when there is nothing else is there to sell? Could a club sell its name? Could we soon see teams named something like ‘Melchester Big Mac Rovers’? We are probably some way off that at the moment but there are some important precedents. In 2010 Stirling Albion considered a tie-in with Compare the Market.com to rename themselves Stirling Albion Meerkats. This rather cuddly concept was vetoed by the SFA - a spokesman advising; "Given that a name change for commercial purposes would have huge implications, the integrity of the game would be paramount in any decision-making process." (link).
For the wealthy benefactor clubs, team naming rights might offer a solution to the thorny problem of how to balance the club’s books for FFP purposes whilst ensuring the club pay top dollar to secure the finest players. UEFA has established the "Club Financial Control Panel" to oversee the licensing process for their European Competitions. One of their duties is to review any commercial contract from a 'related party' (i.e. connected to the owner) and ensure it is for 'fair value' and not artificially inflated in an effort to help the club meet FFP. As the Panel looks at precedents, it would struggle to apportion a 'fair value' to any brand new kind of sponsorship from a related party. A club operating on a 'benefactor model’, willing to add sponsorship to the club name would, potentially, be able to argue that almost any figure (£50m, £80m, £100m?) represents 'fair value'. It is also possible that any naming rights deal could be front-end loaded so that the income could be timed to meet the club's immediate FFP needs. Although the recently announced Premiership TV deal for 2013-16 makes FFP compliance more attainable, the possibility of a top-flight club selling naming rights hasn’t receded entirely (and a lower deal after 2016 might put the issue back on the agenda).
In England, traditionalists can take some comfort from the fact that FA Council approval is currently required for any change of name from the Premier League down the Isthmian and Northern Premier Leagues. Fortunately any change in ‘playing name’ cannot be done overnight – an application needs to be submitted prior to 1 March for the following season (FA rules, page 97).
Headlines were made recently when a potential take-over of Bury by Rangers was muted. Although the story was swiftly denied, the idea was apparently for Bury to play Football League home games at Ibrox in a blue shirts and, ultimately, change their name back to Rangers. It all sounds rather fanciful until we recall events at Wimbledon – the club moved to Milton Keynes and in 2004, the Football League approved the change in club name to MK Dons.
As the FFP requirements start to bite, clubs will increasingly come under pressure to raise income. We should also consider how the Premier League bosses would react to a proposed change in club name for purely commercial reasons. They are unlikely to be at all keen on the idea of selling team naming rights. However, it would be deeply embarrassing for the Premier League to have one or more of their top clubs excluded from the Champions League because they could not meet the FFP criteria. It remains to be seen, but perhaps Peter Scudamore (the champion of the 39th game), or one of his successors, might view team naming rights as the lesser of two evils.
The FA aren’t as rooted in the past as many would believe and perhaps we shouldn’t rely on them indefinitely to protect our current value structure. We should remember how things have changed since 1975 – it now seems inconceivable that the FA would once have insisted that Fulham stick tape on their boots for the good of the game.
Across Europe there are some notable examples of clubs that have considered changing their playing name for commercial reasons:
Last year, it was announced that La Liga team Getafe had been bought for around E90m by the Royal Emirates Group and would in future be known as Team Dubai. It has since transpired that the REG have more in common with the Portsmouth’s former Arabian owners, than Sheikh Mansour. The funding for the purchase has stalled.
SV Austria Salzburg/Red Bull Salzburg
Red Bull Salzburg took over ownership in 2005 and have since changed the name, moved to a new stadium and changed the strip from purple to the Red Bull can colours (with, unsurprisingly, a bull on their badge). A splinter club has been formed under the old name and plays in the third tier of Austrian football.
PSV stands for Philips Sport Vereniging (Philips Sport Union) and for a couple of seasons tried to rebrand themselves as Philips SV. This change wasn’t very effective and was unpopular with the fans and the club has stopped pushing the Philips name.
Llansantffraid/Total Network Solutions/The New Saints
After winning the Welsh Cup in 1996 and qualifying for the Cup Winners Cup, Llansantffraid FC (nicknamed ‘The Saints’) accepted £250,000 from an IT company and became Total Network Solutions Llansantffraid FC. The ‘Llansantffraid’ was soon dropped and the club was generally referred to as ‘TNS’ by fans. In 2006, British Telecom took over the IT company and the sponsorship ended. After trying to sell their naming rights on ebay, the club settled on the name “The New Saints FC”.
This article is also published on www.reclaimthegame.co.uk
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