Ashley decision is grounds for complaint

Newcastle United fans have once again reacted with anger to chairman Mike Ashley’s latest plans to rename St James’ Park. The spectre of the Magpies playing at a newly-named ‘Sports Direct Arena’ has drawn almost unanimous criticism from fans of the club – and not for the first time. Back in 2009 and 2010 similar plans were panned by fans.

Yet once again supporters woke to the news that Ashley was planning to rename their stadium, this time from St James’ Park to ‘Sports Direct Arena’ as a temporary measure to “showcase” sponsorship opportunities. Sports Direct is, of course, a leisurewear retailer owned by Mike Ashley.

Managing director Derek Llambias said: “To grow sustainably and allow us to invest in our future, we will need to rely increasingly heavily on commercial income. These are very difficult economic times and the board have a responsibility to maximise all revenue streams for the benefit of the club.

“Naming the stadium the Sports Direct Arena helps up to showcase the opportunity to interested parties. We are now actively seeking a long-term sponsor wishing to acquire full naming rights for the stadium.

“Our shirt sponsorship deal with Northern Rock will also expire at the end of this season, which presents would-be sponsors with the opportunity to acquire both the naming rights and shirt sponsorship deals.”

Newcastle United wouldn’t be the first Premier League club to play in a ground named after a commercial sponsor. Arsenal, Bolton Wanderers, Manchester City, Stoke City, Swansea City, and Wigan Athletic all do so.

Crucially though all of these clubs sold the naming rights to a newly built stadium which had no past, only a future. But Mike Ashley’s proposal trashes concepts such tradition. Home of the club since 1891, when the city’s East and West End clubs merged, St James' Park represents more than 100 years of history. And it is this fact which has guaranteed almost universal opposition from individual fans, supporters’ groups, and fanzines.

Last month Football Supporters’ Federation affiliate Newcastle United Supporters Trust (NUST) conducted some research among Toon Army fans and there was recognition that the board had done well in controlling costs. Aligned with some smart transfer business, and a flying start to the season, morale was high on Tyneside although there was still lingering suspicion of the club’s hierarchy.
 
Michael Thewlis of NUST explains: “Despite the goodwill that this [sitting in the top three] has brought the owner, fans told us that they remain sceptical about his motivations. This latest news about renaming the stadium to the ‘Sports Direct Arena’ clearly demonstrates why they are sceptical.

“Newcastle’s ground has been St James’ Park for more than 100 years and two years ago Derek Llambias assured fans that the stadium’s official name would always remain St James' Park as long as they were in charge. So, is it any wonder that fans told us they don't trust the board, want a new owner and why the majority of Newcastle fans want to own a stake in the Club?”

Mark Jensen, editor of Newcastle United fanzine The Mag, accused the club’s hierarchy of undermining on-field exploits. He also pointed out that Ashley has succeeded only in alienating the club’s fan base – while not generating any extra revenue.

Speaking to The Daily Mirror he said: “What the club has done just reinforces what everyone has thought about them that no matter what strides the likes of Alan Pardew and the players might take on the pitch, there is always something from above that undermines everything.

“It’s no coincidence that they have performed a typical politician’s trick and waited until things are going well to slip in something like this on the back of a cut-price season ticket deal which has filled the empty seats. It’s quite cynical.

“The writing is on the wall. The shirt deal is up at the end of the season and I don’t think anybody would be surprised if we ended up with the ground as the Sports Direct Arena and Sports Direct as the shirt sponsor. As it stands today, this announcement has brought no extra money into the club, but they have seriously annoyed a large proportion of their fan base.”

“Certainly in the short-term, the only person who is benefiting is Mike Ashley and Sports Direct. It’s a very strange way to run a big business which happens to be a football club. I think there are much better ways of maximising the potential revenue than turning their fan-base against them.”

Many Toon Army fans feel that Ashley is a man who understands the price of everything and the value of nothing. Even if his plans were successful, and brought in a £2 or £3m in revenue, fans would understandably question the decision. Is it worth selling off more than 100 years of tradition for the price of a journeyman midfielder?

The overwhelming majority of Newcastle United fans think not.

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