St. James’ Park has been (the name of) Newcastle United’s home ground since the club’s foundation in 1892 from the merger of Newcastle West End and Newcastle East End.
Until Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007, a full 115 years later, it would have been unthinkable to see the stadium renamed, yet Mike Ashley wasted little time in doing exactly this. Under the guise of wanting to grow commercial income, the stadium was renamed first to “sportsdirect.com@St.James’Park” and later to “Sports Direct Arena”, in order to “showcase” his primary business interest Sports Direct to the world wide Premier League audience.
On the fateful day that Mike Ashley announced his decision to ‘take Newcastle United off the market’, he also announced additional devastating news about plans to sell the stadium’s naming rights (27 October 2009):
“The club aims to maximise its commercial revenues; this includes(…) welcoming offers for the stadium naming rights for next season.”
Source: The Guardian
The announcement that the stadium naming rights to St. James’ Park were up for sale immediately caused a lot of unrest among Newcastle United fans. Derek Llambias’ ‘assurance’ that the name St. James Park would not be lost and the club’s history would be respected did little to quell fans worries (3 November 2009):
“Our intention is to have, for instance, sportsdirect.com@StJames’Park. We were never going to lose St James’ Park, it was always going to be @StJames’Park.
“The Gallowgate has already got sportsdirect.com. We are going to follow that through and take it to the rest of the season as a showcase to whoever is out there who would like to buy the package.
“We know the history, it’s incredible history. There is an incredible passion with the fans and there is an ownership to it. So we understand St James’ Park – the history is wonderful. We are not trying to take that away, we are just trying to add something to the revenue and status of our club.”
Source: The Guardian
The very next day the announcement was made that St. James’ Park would be renamed to sportsdirect.com@StJames’Park. Derek Llambias went on air again to explain the decision (4 November 2009):
“We will showcase Sports Direct until the end of the season. I’m sure we’re going to get a sponsor in for next season.
(…) Asked if the name “St James’ Park” would always remain amid an angry response from fans, Llambias said: “Absolutely. In our reign, absolutely.
“It’s adding to it, and if it brings in a good chunk of money to the club, that goes straight to the team, then do you know what, it’s a revenue we should look at. Success, really, will heal the wounds, and time, a combination of both. We are patient people and I think the fans will come around eventually. I have no idea what length of time that will be – I may be a very old man before it’s done – but I think the fans will see in the future that we do care.”
Five years later it’s safe to say not one part of these assurances were based in truth. As we will see below, the name St. James’ Park was quickly sacrificed, a new sponsor for the stadium naming rights was never found (conveniently paving the way for a full Sports Direct renaming, which raises the question if this was always the plan in the first place), the club’s commercial revenue is lower than before Ashley took over and any money the club makes (mainly from TV deals) certainly doesn’t go straight to the team. Finally, any form of on the pitch success is certainly not forthcoming as long as Ashley owns the club.
Little over two years after Derek Llambias’ assurances that St. James’ Park would never be dropped from the stadium name, the club announced the ground would henceforth be known as the Sports Direct Arena (9 November 2011):
“The board are committed to generating additional commercial revenue from advertising and sponsorship opportunities. The original naming rights proposal, launched in November 2009, invited sponsors to link their brand to St. James’ Park, but this did not prove commercially attractive.
“As such, the club will now seek a sponsor who will be granted full naming rights. Until such time the stadium will be renamed the Sports Direct Arena.
Source: The Chronicle
Interestingly, despite the so-called commitment to generating additional commercial revenue, Newcastle United’s accounts in subsequent reporting periods have shown that the club generates ZERO commercial revenue from this deal, as well as from the ever increasing Sports Direct advertisement boarding in and around the stadium, often replacing previously income generating deals to compound matters further. Whether through sheer incompetence or downright malice, Ashley has overseen the structural lowering of the club’s commercial revenue stream (in a period where other clubs have seen their commercial revenue grow substantially) to the benefit of his own company. At the last Sports Direct AGM, Mike Ashley when prompted by journalists declared:
“Those relationships are very beneficial to Sports Direct and its shareholders. And I think that nothing else needs to be said.”
Source: The Mirror
Renaming to St. James’ Park following Wonga sponsorship deal
The stadium renaming was eventually reversed in a rather obvious public relations exercise following the announcement that shirt sponsorship rights had been sold to hugely unpopular loan shark Wonga, whose spokesman had this to say (9 October 2012):
“We listened over the last three days and we saw what really matters to the fans. Football is an emotional sport and it is obviously really important to them. We listened to what they wanted and that is why we did it.”
Recently news reports have suggested that Wonga may be reconsidering its sponsorship deal with Newcastle United (source: City AM). If this happens (or even when the Wonga deal comes to its natural end) stadium renaming to Sports Direct Arena may well be on the agenda sooner than we think, considering what the club said in its latest fan forum meeting (22 October 2014):
LH: “If the deal ends in two years’ time, would the stadium naming rights be resold?”
The club stated that the stadium naming rights had been bought by Wonga and effectively given back to the club as part of Wonga’s sponsorship deal but that the club has not considered and is not considering it at present.