Mike Rowbottom: UK Athletics considers the pros and cons of having one name in the frame
Friday, 15 June 2012
So it was that the Polish Cup winners, Ruch Chorzow, took on the mighty – in name at any rate – Total Network Solutions Llansantffraid FC, and beat them 6-1 on aggregate. In 1997, the club's name shifted again, to Total Network Solutions FC, making it the first in the UK to rename itself after a sponsor's name only.
It is a trend which, in more recent years, has applied to stadia rather than teams. Thus Bolton now play at the Reebok Stadium. And Manchester City play in what has already become known – even better from a sponsor's point of view – as "the Etihad".
Thus the Ireland rugby union team now plays at the Aviva Stadium, which, as its marketing term makes clear in a rather double-sided reference, is Built on Greatness. That is, on the site of the venerable and venerated Lansdowne Road stadium.
It's the way of the world. It's business. Any company willing to invest millions in sport naturally wants more bang for its buck, and naming teams and stadia directly is simply the extreme end of a logical position.
But there is also an emotional element involved in such shifts. And as was recently evident in the commotion when Mike Ashley, owner of Newcastle United, reaped a whirlwind of outrage after re-naming St James' Park as Sports Direct Arena, in honour of his company, a move which was flatly repudiated, not only by home supporters, but also Newcastle City Council.
"To us, along with the majority of fans, the home of Newcastle United will always be called St James' Park," said a Council spokesman. It is an emblematic quote which emphasises clearly the part which tradition and emotion play in our sporting life.
In elite modern day sport, sponsorship is not so much desirable as essential, and the companies who have taken over the names of long-established sporting arenas, or who cover all available footage within such arenas with their branding and logo, can reasonably argue they have paid for the privilege.
But let's not pretend that there is not a loss with this gain, a loss to the intrinsic nature of the sport or institution. As we look ahead to the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics which are now but six weeks away, we as a nation will focus our attention on the flagship sport of athletics as perhaps never before.
Aviva, the insurance and finance group, have in one form or another – previously through Norwich Union, of which they are the parent company - provided excellent sponsorship for British athletics. The company's distinctive yellow and blue branding is all over UK Athletics, its stadia and its athletes.
The very team we will be enjoined to cheer on will be the Aviva Great Britain and Northern Ireland team. It's a well-merited triumph of marketing. But, from the point of view of a sport, every time it involves itself so intrinsically with a named sponsor in terms of a team or a stadium, it loses a vital bit of equity, of identity.
There has been speculation recently that UK Athletics, whose most recent four-year deal with Aviva comes to an end this year, may be investigating other possible models of sponsorship involving several equal companies rather than one big, top-tier naming rights company.
It would be idle to suppose that UK Athletics have not at the very least considered their options in a year when, if all goes well with the likes of Jessica Ennis, Phillips Idowu, Dai Greene and Co in the Olympic stadium – no naming rights there – their commercial stock could rise higher than ever.
While it may yet turn out that UK Athletes remain with the big, generous institution which has underwritten its ambitions for a decade and a half, an alternative model clearly has potential advantages. Having a "family" of sponsors can create an accompanying phenomenon whereby there is mutual support – the kind of synergy that BT and Sainsbury's have operated in maximising their connection with the 2012 Paralympic Games.
A more "democratic" approach also obviates any feelings of frustration a lower tier sponsor might harbour over the relative blank canvas enjoyed by a top tier sponsor. McCain decided not to renew their £1 million sponsorship of UKA this year. Who is to say that part of that decision was not down to a sense that they could not make their brand stand out sufficiently amid the yellow and blue of Aviva?
A year from now, UK Athletics may be sponsored by several, "equal" sponsors, of whom Aviva may be one. Or it may be sponsored, once again, by Aviva. Before either scenario becomes a reality, however, there will be a vigorous debate over the pluses and minuses of a Big Sponsor.
A vigorous debate, however, that no one is even thinking of starting until after the 2012 Games are successfully completed.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames. Rowbottom's Twitter feed can be accessed here.