November 11, 2011 / 2:29 PM / in 6 years

What's in a name? Cash, it seems

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - As Newcastle United fans smolder with indignation at the re-naming of their St James’ Park stadium to the ‘Sports Direct Arena’, a brief scout around the sporting world suggests they might instead count their blessings.

For while the rebranding of the 119-year-old venue has enraged many of the English premier league soccer club’s supporters, this fiscally motivated move would appear mild compared to some steps taken by team owners, leagues and athletes to boost their bank balances.

Thai boxers, for example, think little of changing their names. Highly rated flyweight, the former Prasitsak Papoem, now goes by the moniker of Kwanpichit 13 Rien Express, having named himself after a Bangkok eatery.

A bantamweight by the name of Pichitchai Twins Gym also earns his living in the ring, though presumably he is no close relation to super bantamweight Petch Twins Gym, featherweight fighter Kompetch Twins Gym, nor even a distant cousin to Komrith Eveready-Gym. Samson 3-k battery, meanwhile, was a powerful super flyweight who retired with a 43-0 record.

Since the early days of British soccer club shirt sponsorship in the 1970s and ‘80s, and British show-jumping horses named after double-glazing firms, there has been an inevitable influx of commercialization in sport, and of the re-branding of sporting properties.

But, as one sports branding expert told Reuters, it is key to get the fit between sponsor and property right.

“Successful naming rights deals are rare things,” said Singapore-based James Scholefield.

”There’s no doubt that newly built stadia do offer brands great opportunities to ‘own’ real estate from a branding point of view, but more importantly to imbed themselves in the everyday argot of fans and, indeed, the media.

“I would argue, however, that by rebadging an existing stadium, at best brands are unlikely to get the all-important emotional buy-in of fans and at worst, they could end up alienating the very people they are seeking to influence.”

RISK-REWARD RATIO

“What would-be sponsors really need to ask themselves is whether the additional spend for naming rights on top of having your logo on the team shirt -- and the hundreds of thousands worn by adoring fans -- is really money well spent,” he added.

Newcastle are only naming their ground after owner Mike Ashley’s company Sports Direct until they find a sponsor to take over the full naming rights on a permanent basis.

The path to selecting a sponsor can be a perilous one and Newcastle would do well to consider it carefully, taking into account image as well as the size of check offered.

Sponsors too must consider their position carefully.

“Any sponsor giving serious thought to the opportunity at Newcastle will be thinking long and hard about the risk-reward ratio,” Scholefield said.

”On the plus side, Newcastle are a globally recognized ‘brand’ in footballing terms, with a large and passionate supporter base and an iconic stadium.

“But against that, the current regime is viewed by many as a stain on the club’s proud history. Any brand CEO who shakes hands with Ashley on a naming rights deal may be advised to remember that the fans at St James Park see things in black and white.”

In the 1990s, college football players in the United States competed for the Poulan Weed-eater Independence Bowl. Vying for top spot among some of the wackier named year-enders in that sport have been the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Bowl and the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Top spot, in prosaic terms at least, should probably go to the Salad Bowl, hosted by Phoenix from 1948 to ‘52.

But even college football’s food-based nomenclature must take a back seat to motorsport in the United States.

Consider NASCAR -- drivers at the Michigan International Speedway will next year once more race for the ‘Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips 400’.

That race could be forgiven for suffering an identity crisis, having undergone a number of name changes, from the initial, sober ‘Motor State 500’ in 1969, to the superheroic 2005 ‘Batman Begins 400’ and the more-than-a-mouthful ‘3M Performance 400 Presented by Post-it Picture Paper’ a year later in 2006.

With minor league baseball boasting ‘Whataburger Field’ in Texas, Rhode Island sporting a ‘Dunkin’ Donuts Center’, and League of Ireland soccer side Drogheda United playing their home matches at ‘Hunky Dorys Park’, suddenly Newcastle’s ‘Sports Direct Arena’ seems a sober, and fitting, choice.

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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