Corporations are taking over soccer, right? If you believe this, then the renaming of St. James’ Park is surely incontrovertible evidence on your behalf. Kristan Heneage already wrote about this, saying that the name is irrelevant since the ground will always be St. James’ Park even if the sign outside says otherwise.
In the United States, the stadium boom of the last three decades has resulted in virtually every stadium being replaced, so nobody makes much of a fuss about stadium renaming. It’s generally acknowledged new structures auction off their naming rights, but the few older ones remaining ought not to be for sale (Fenway Park and Lambeau Field for instance). But even if Fenway Park became Hancock Field, it will always be called Fenway. Corporations can pay all the money in the world for new signs and lettering, but they cannot mandate what a stadium is actually called in the bars.
In fact, the outrage over the St. James’ Park renaming seems arbitrary. I understand the stadium has been in existence for a century and the perceived corporate takeover of top-flight football seems unstoppable if the historical St. James Park cannot be salvaged. But decades ago, European fans accepted sponsorships on their uniforms, something Americans still largely reject. The names of English soccer leagues begin with companies; it’s not “The Premier League, brought to you by Barclays Bank”, it’s “Barclays Premier League” and “Npower Championship League”.
If sponsorships are so rampant in English football —truly, in all sports everywhere— then why is St. James’ Park the line in the sand for some? As The Gaffer commented on Kristan’s article, “for a club to rename their ground in favor of stadium rights to a current ground is an injustice in my opinion.” Yes the grounds are old and there is an aspect of tradition in concern. But if the underlying issue is inflicting an impurity on the game, then surely having a corporate logo on the very uniforms the players wear would be the ultimate impurity. After all, the words “Fly Emirates” are front and center and the Arsenal patch occupies but a tiny piece of jersey space. Who are the players actually playing for?
If you think that’s a foolish question, that’s because it is. In the modern sporting world, players do not play for Love of Club, and to think otherwise is to be shrouded in a fog of disillusionment. But, it’s also true the quality of the game and passion of the players has, if anything, increased since sponsorships became involved. Shockingly enough, professional footballers are by and large competitive creatures — a Carlos Tevez incident or two aside — and a large contract is more enticing than an abstract association with a sporting club. (To test this hypothesis, do you think international friendlies offer superior quality than club matches?)
The same debate is coming to fold in the United States about college athletics, where players are poorly compensated—relative to the profits universities make off their skills—under the guise of being “student-athletes”. This is nonsense. But it further reveals the myth of athletic purity, that somehow games competed under the notion of pride are superior to games backed by billions of dollars or pounds.
Once you can shed the myth of athletic purity, any outrage you may experience over Sporting Direct Arena will be revealed as inconsequential. Call the grounds whatever you desire, stare directly into the large Northern Rock lettering in the middle of the striped kit—with a Puma logo equal in size to the Newcastle patch in the corners—and realize this whole corporate takeover of sports is only important if you want to make it so. Otherwise, let the games commence.