The game of the name

Published on 30th August 2020
Author George Dodds

What’s the big deal? It’s only a name after all.

Would you really get your knickers in a knot, whip the spare bedsheet out of the airing cupboard, scrawl a suitably pithy epitaph in black magic marker (a Sharpie if you’re more hipster than traditionalist), rally your friends (real or imagined) and launch a campaign vowing to fight to the bitter end against the imposition of something which threatens the very basic pillars of life.

Or would you just shrug your shoulders, mutter a weary “Meh” and put it all down to being the way of the modern world?

There’s a lot going on in the world at the moment – although sadly very little involving 500cc machines on British dirt tracks – but the spark for today’s blog – I’ll not dignify it with a word such as inspiration – flickered when amateur speedway and virtual pub quizzes collided.

As we prepare for an National League standard challenge at the Eddie Wright Raceway and the return at the Paul Chapman and Sons Arena (Scunthorpe and Leicester in old money) I was competing with some of the country’s sharpest sporting brains via the wonders of Zoom.

Question master: Where do Brighton and Hove Albion, Huddersfield Giants, Manchester City and Arsenal stage their home fixtures?

Obviously, the answers are: The Falmer Stadium, The Kirklees Stadium, City of Manchester Stadium and Ashburton Grove (although the Arsenal Stadium would have squeaked it). Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

But come final reckoning it would be fair to say that many of my fellow quizzers were not happy chappies and chapettes.

They argued that any fool knows Arsenal play at The Emirates, Brighton The Amex, City at The Etihad and Huddersfield – well it could be the Alfred McAlpine, The John Smith’s or The Galpharm.

That’s what Talkradio, LBC, even the BBC calls them so what the hell was going on? They had never heard of any of these places. Had Jeremy Corbyn secretly been transported into power by his Russian paymaster (this mixture of satire and irony will be lost on Conservative voters) and punished our right-leaning football and rugby supporting masses by renaming their sporting citadels with inane, but geographically precise monikers?

The truth is more mundane. Quite simply in sport – as in politics – money talks and everything has a price, even history.

Once upon a time naming a sporting venue meant little more than using the name of the road which led you to the turnstiles, the park it was built in, current King or Queen, its original purpose (Athletics Grounds, Drill Field), location (Central Park, Canal Street) or a local worthy – a butcher perhaps – who donated some grass for the pursuit of sport by the masses.

Normally a long way from the posh part of town where they had their worthy-people big houses.

There was the odd anomaly. Shrewsbury’s Gay Meadow alludes to a much more innocent time, Millwall’s Den fitting bearing in mind some of the animals who have followed them over the years while Middlefart FC’s eponymous home in Denmark along with the Wankdorf in Berne was a sniggering teenagers’ dream come true.

Then there were the comedians.

Anyone who had the misfortune of spending a Sunday afternoon during the dour days when rugby league was a winter sport in Britain will testify that Dewsbury’s Crown Flatt was anything but and whoever decided to call Batley’s home Mount Pleasant had a very wicked sense of humour indeed.

Overt sponsorship was a dirty word in sport well into the 1970s but there was always ways around it. America, naturally, led the way.

Two of the most famous baseball diamonds in the world were Wrigley Field in Chicago and Boston’s Fenway Park – both named after the team’s owners who, coincidentally, happened to run eponymous multi-million dollar companies. Handy.

Which led to the bizarre case of the St Louis Cardinals when, in 1953, owner August Busch Jr wanted to rename its Sportsman’s Park home after his family-brewery’s most famous beer.

Baseball’s rulers said Budweiser Stadium was simply a commercial but suggested a compromise of Busch Stadium. Then they were hit by a curve ball as the brewery immediately released a new brew – Busch Bavarian Beer – Busch for short.

While renaming stadiums was generally unpopular and usually led to supporters simply refusing to recognise the efforts of the club bean counters the need to replace crumbling edifices with modern sporting facilities offered a solution.

Liverpool’s owners recently admitted that, while they would never consider auctioning off the naming rights to Anfield, if they ever built a new stadium in the city it would be a different story.

Around the world evocative stadium names such as the Sydney Football Stadium, Meadowlands, Lang Park, Stadio Friuli and Lancaster Park have been replaced by a collection of bland banks, breweries, car manufacturers and airlines.

In England Bolton’s move from a town centre location to the green belt saw their new home named not after a road, area or famous ex-Wanderer but at least it was one which could trace its roots in the town back to 1895. Subsequently Macron and The University of Bolton (really, such a place exists outside a Peter Kay routine) have enjoyed the pleasure of hosting the Wanderers but the easy acceptance by Trotters supporters of The Reebok moniker didn’t go un-noticed in north London and when Arsenal unveiled its new home some years later again it was not New Highbury but a, then, little-known but expanding Middle Eastern airline.

Since then no new build is complete without lucrative naming rights but it is still possible to mix money and morals. As is so often is the case on social issues, Sweden leads the way. The giant Swedbank paid handsomely for the naming rights of the main stadium in Stockholm only to donate them to the Friends Foundation – a non-profit organisation bidding to end bullying in schools.

Some sponsorships are subtle – few outside Doncaster realise that Keepmoat are home builders or that Halliwell-Jones were not two Warrington rugby league legends but a local car dealership.

Others are a little toe-curling – I give you the Tony Macaroni arena in Livingstone, the KFC Yum Center in Louisville, Witton Albion’s Bargain Booze Stadium, the SportsDirect@StJames’Park and the Mend-a-Hose Jungle, aka Castleford Tigers’ Wheldon Road stadium.

Even speedway has climbed aboard the money train with King’s Lynn and the aforementioned Redcar benefitting from sponsorship largesse while the British Grand Prix is held in a stadium currently named after a local building society.

Hopefully non-league football side Lewes will never auction off the naming rights to their beautiful sounding Dripping Pan while the switch from Keighley’s Lawkholme Lane to Cougar Park was to do with the club’s rebranding in the 1980s rather than the rather ragged collection of ladies who tended to gather on the street corners around the ground during evening fixtures.

Meanwhile Mexican Premier League side Santos Laguna is probably begging someone to change the name of their home, the Estadio Corona.

But just in case you think the power has swung to the money men comes a cautionary tale of how you can lead a sports’ fan to water but can’t make him drink the corporate BS.

Major League Soccer side Colorado Rapids were paid a pretty sum to allow Dicks Sporting Goods to become its name sponsor. The company is a sort of American Sports Direct only with Stetsons and hunting rifles.

Rather like their counterparts in black and white the Rapidos refuse to use the ground’s full title, instead referring to it simply as “The Dick”.

George Dodds
George Dodds

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