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Newcastle United has changed the name of its famous stadium from St James’ Park to the Sports Direct Arena.

In the parlance much beloved of digital media planners, the stadium is now “paid media” for Sports Direct.

(I am not going to get sidetracked here by the fact that the club’s owner is also the sponsor’s owner. Whether or not any money has actually changed hands is irrelevant to this post.)

What I’m more concerned about is whether the sponsorship can work.

For “work” read whether the name change can deliver the significant level of “earned media” value that is central to the return on investment model for most sponsorships.

I seriously doubt it.

For two reasons.

The first is a legacy issue.

The Forrester Consulting definition of earned media is “when the customers become the channel”. Word of mouth basically.

In the case of the Sports Direct Arena, for customers read fans.

It is only the Sports Direct Arena if the fans choose to call it the Sports Direct Arena.

And the fans are right royally pissed off.

This has something to do with recent history in terms of the fans’ relationship with the owner of “their” club. Changing the name of the stadium is the latest in a series of bones to be picked with him by the supporters.

But is mainly to do with pride, tradition and history.

The ground has been called St James’ Park for 119 years.

And it is the same bricks and mortar stadium that it was this time last week. The physical building and its physical location haven’t changed. It is still St James’ Park.

Unlike Arsenal’s Emirates  Stadium.

(Arsenal fans can’t cling to “Highbury” because the old stadium has been bulldozed. The Emirates is a new (better) stadium with a new name. No legacy issue.)

Unlike Bolton’s Reebok Stadium.

(Bolton fans can’t cling to “Burnden Park” because the old stadium has been bulldozed. The Reebok is a new (better) stadium with a new name. No legacy issue.)

Unlike Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium.

(City fans can’t cling to “Maine Road” because the old stadium has been bulldozed. The Etihad is a new (better) stadium with a new name. No legacy issue.)

In each of these cases the stadium is new. The fans can’t cling to the old name.

In each of these cases the stadium is also better than the old one. And the improvement has been made possible, in part, by the funding provided by the brands that have given their names to the new grounds. So maybe there is also less resistance on the part of the fans. Emirates, Reebok and Etihad are more patrons than sponsors, and more welcome for it.

In the case of Newcastle United, there is a huge legacy issue. And the only thing that has been bulldozed is the sensitivities of the fans.

The second reason this name change won’t work is that Sports Direct Arena is what the brewing industry would describe as a bad bar call.

It’s a shit name basically.

Staropramen is a very good Czech beer.

But many people don’t know how to pronounce it.

Those that do are a little bit embarrassed about asking for it in public when there are easier to say viable alternatives like Stella on offer.

For beer brands, naming is a primary upstream strategic issue. It can make or break a brand in the on trade at least.

“The Emirates” has a global, cosmopolitan feel to it. It’s a premier league name.

“The Reebok” too is global. And it carries with it a bunch of positive sporting associations. It’s a premier league name.

“The Etihad” is global with (once you learn how to pronounce it) more than a hint of eastern mystery and promise. It’s a premier league name.

By comparison “The Sports Direct” has a distinctly lower league vibe.

If Scarborough hadn’t already played at the McCain Stadium (the “Theatre Of Chips”) they wouldn’t feel out of place in The Sports Direct Arena.

Geordie fans are famous for describing Newcastle United as a “big club”.

Sports Direct Arena is a “small club” name.

It’s a shit stadium call.

So…

…Sports Direct has a paid medium asset in the form of the stadium formerly known as St James’ Park by its owners, but still known as St James’ Park by its fans.

If it wants to turn this into an earned media asset as well it has a job to do to combat both the legacy and the shit bar call issues described above.

Contrary to popular marketing belief, earned media is not free. As its name suggests, it has to be worked for.

I remember conversations with the Carling lager brand team around the time of its highly successful Premier League sponsorship.

Before they signed on the multi-million dotted line, a large American beer brand had apparently walked away from the same deal when it realised what was actually on offer.

What Carling were paying for was the right for them, Carling, to call it the Carling Premiership.

There was no obligation on anyone else, neither fans nor media, to mention their name.

They had to work really hard to earn their earned media.

Lots of face to face meetings with journalists and TV companies. Lots of entertaining. Lots of face time.

And the grass roots, media relations hard yards paid off.

For years after Carling dropped the sponsorship they remained more synonymous with the Premiership than Barclaycard who replaced them.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

And there’s no such thing as free earned media.

As Newcastle United and Sports Direct are about to find out.

 

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