NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 05: Home support during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Everton at St James' Park on November 5, 2011 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
Newcastle's home stadium has been rebranded as Sports Direct Arena, according to the Newcastle United Official Site. Sports Direct is the sporting goods company founded by Newcastle owner Mike Ashley, and there was some controversy earlier this year when the words "Newcastle United" were removed from the top of the east stand and replaced with a Sports Direct logo. The venue has been known as St James' Park since the club first started using it in 1892.
Before I move on, I want to make clear that though I am firmly against this move, I am also well aware that there are more rage-inducing (and certainly more serious) stories dominating the world of athletics at the moment, most notably the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. Before we storm Mike Ashley's castle, let's have some perspective. Nobody has been physically hurt or abused as a result of these actions. That said, it's not insignificant that 119 years of history was summarily thrown out the window by an owner who apparently has a jones for the quick buck.
I have some questions for Mr. Ashley.
I'm not only questioning why this didn't happen during the offseason, but I want to know if this move was calculated to happen when goodwill toward management is at its apex. Obviously, managing director Derek Llambias and company couldn't have predicted an 11-game unbeaten streak, but the whole thing smacks of opportunism. I wonder if they were ready to roll with this decision back in August but had to wait for the transfer window anger to blow over.
Perhaps more to the point, I can't help but wonder if the 2012 Olympics played a part. What businessman doesn't want his brand exposed to the global audience that the Olympics provide? If this is the case, I would rather that games weren't played in the North East than that be the cause of the new name.
Does this have anything to do with Mike Ashley's loans to the club?
Over the years, Mike Ashley has loaned £139.8 million of his personal fortune to the club (through the 2009-10 fiscal year). Could it be that this naming rights deal is a way to pay himself back, using his own company? Sports Direct gives money to Newcastle in exchange for naming rights, and Ashley uses that money to pay off his business loan to his personal account. Mind you, this is just wild speculation, but I would imagine that Ashley feels he has the right to do this.
The club statement (linked above) states that the current naming situation is temporary, and since Northern Rock's shirt sponsorship ends when this season does, the club is offering a package deal to any company that wants their name on both the stadium and the kit (see the deal between Arsenal and Emirates Airlines). It's entirely within the realm of possibility that there is a company that goes for this (I'm personally rooting for Newcastle Breweries or something similar that will at least put the town's name back on the stadium and the shirt, but I'm not holding my breath), but what if Ashley simply decides to put the price of said sponsorship way up in the stratosphere, essentially ensuring Sports Direct maintains its presence at SJP? Maybe I'm just a crazy conspiracy theorist and they really do want to sell the rights.
I get that arena, park, stadium, etc are basically interchangeable descriptors now, but when I hear arena, I think of a small, intimate venue, like one used for hockey or basketball. Off the top of my head, I don't know of a venue used primarily for association football that has the word "arena" in it, though I'm probably missing a really obvious one. Why not go with "stadium" or "field"? Or you know, stick with "park." At least then it wouldn't feel like you were trying to rewrite history.