Brandalism

As published in Inside Sport, May 2008

Remember Modra’s mark of the year at AAMI Stadium back in 1993? Yeah, well, it wasn’t half as good as Tarrant’s speccy at Telstra Dome… or was it Colonial Stadium back then? Never heard the crowd go off like that – except when Freeman won her gold at that other Telstra joint in Sydney.

For young aspiring athletes growing up, one of the magical aspects of big-time sport is the awe-inspiring stadiums. When you say you’re off to “the G”, everyone knows precisely where you mean: a cricket World Cup, Olympic Games, grand finals, Boxing Day Tests, heart-stopping moments and a multitude of triumphs and tragedies. Alternatively, the SCG’s Members Pavilion still invokes a connection to a cavalcade of past greats, while the picturesque Adelaide Oval is Australia’s own beautiful village green. What’s in a name? Maybe a more apt question is what isn’t represented by the names attached to the places where generations of our beloved sporting heroes and teams have performed their amazing and inspirational deeds?

Sadly, there’s no longer much reverence or respect afforded our sporting grounds. Even deserted fields of battle that have sadly become nothing more than training grounds surrounded by decaying grandstands and weedy banks are deemed worthy of assigning cold, meaningless brand names – effectively purging decades of history. Our older, more famous stadiums have by and large resisted – so far. Authorities wouldn’t allow the renaming of the Sydney Opera House, but if Sydney’s Olympic stadium has a price, will the SCG remain off limits?

As with most insidious commercial concepts that invade our consciousness, venue naming rights originated in the US. Since 1990, the practice has exploded across America, with almost 250 sporting venues labelled with such stirring monikers as 95KGGO Arena, Dunkin Donuts Centre and Whataburger Field. I kid you not.  Meanwhile, there are two First Third Fields just in Ohio (and four First Third venues in total), while Toyota is honoured five times for their spectacular um … vehicles.

Nearly half of the teams in the big four national leagues have cashed in tradition for dollars. One of the most unedifying examples has surely been San Francisco’s famous Candlestick Park, which bizarrely became 3Com Park and now – more ludicrously – Monster Park. Beware of T-Rex, kids.

Pointing to a lucrative, rather than ridiculous decision by the sponsor at least, 3Com claimed a revenue increase of 50 per cent following the first year of its agreement. The cost effectiveness of naming rights is further illustrated by America West Airlines, who purchased naming rights to the Phoenix Suns’ arena for US$550,000. When the Suns hosted the Chicago Bulls in the 1993 NBA finals, a 30-second commercial spot on NBC cost US$300,000. The America West name and logo were seen and heard countless times on TV throughout the series at a cost of less than a one-minute commercial. Research also found nearly 90% of sports fans in four US states surveyed were able to correctly name stadium sponsors, hence the proliferation of the practice.

There are pitfalls beyond intangibles such as the disillusionment of fans and destruction of sporting iconology. It’s not uncommon for agreements to expire or companies to change names, requiring stadiums to do the same. When a company bails out, they can win a hefty free kick until a new suitor is found. Then there’s the dreaded sponsorship clash. At the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, the Allianz Arena in Munich had to be renamed “FIFA World Cup Stadium Munich” and now the same stadium will be known as the “Munchen Arena” during the UEFA Cup.  Welcome to… wherever you are!  How can new venues ever expect to develop a sense of history or cultural connection to anything in this environment? Lack of continuity might impact on the ability of a venue to draw crowds, but worse is the commodification of sport.

If trudging along to Acme Arena isn’t annoying enough, beware the next wave of corporate brainwashing. Major League Soccer club the New York Metro Stars is now known as the New York Red Bulls – after the treacly alcohol mixer drink of dubious health benefits (apparently a “perfect fit” for the young, hip, burgeoning US soccer market). In Europe, the energy drink owns a soccer team in Salzburg and teams in Germany and the Netherlands. Numerous Japanese baseball teams are also named after companies and, recently, a team in Korea – formerly known as the Hyundai Unicorns – signed a deal involving a new corporate name, Woori (tobacco) Heroes.  To supposedly avoid constant changes, a threeyear, $32 million deal was struck.

The obvious danger of direct association is that the business cannot easily disassociate from the team and vice versa. Perhaps only those familiar with cheering on a particular car manufacturer in motor sport can explain passionate allegiances to profit-driven ventures. With companies prepared to shell out big bucks, clubs around the world are increasingly vulnerable to being sucked down a corporate vortex, especially those short of coin. If selling one’s soul is required to run a competitive team out on the ground, it’s probably time to question what purpose the club, and the sport, is serving.

Sports sponsorship is close to an 11-figure industry – more than $12.4 billion will be spent in 2008 by North American companies alone (up 16 per cent on last year). Considering the risk of associating with so many socially irresponsible sports stars, the continued growth of corporate support is remarkable … Amid ever increasing clutter, it’s not surprising that once sacred cows are up for sale.

Sponsors making their name part of the lingo are simply employing an ingenious, yet dictatorial method of ensuring bang for their buck. Even in casual conversation about play, commentators dare not refer to the cricket as anything but the “3 Mobile Test Series”. Even fans can’t avoid inadvertent corporate plugs. Forget 100 years of history, the premier domestic cricket competition has gone from a regal shield to a milky cup – in a sport that has been a slave to tradition.

Hundreds of tennis and golf tournaments around the world are indiscernible owing to their title. When the Geelong Cats’ Garry Hocking temporarily changed his name by deed poll to the cat food “Whiskas” in the late ’90s, it was a bit of a laugh. It was marketing gold, a fun novelty unlikely to be repeated. Well, it was last year by Tongan rugby player Epeli Taione (to that of Irish bookmaker Paddy Power), but you know what we mean. The ball, the wickets, the grass, referees, uniforms, equipment, airspace above, boxers’ noggins, patrons … there’s no end to tacky “brandalism”.

Rather than simply accept their share of media exposure, egocentric executives want to own, rather than support, sport. Ultimately, whatever resentment the public might feel about corporate entities hijacking hallowed turf, there is precious little they can do – bar staying at home or boycotting said products. Only those with the most resolute principles will follow through with such idle threats. The economic realities of sport are by and large accepted by the public, albeit with a fair degree of corporate chest-beating – despite precious little evidence of any ticket prices being lower owing to their involvement.

Cricket Australia has assured us the baggy green cap is off limits to any form of commercialisation and, ironically, the uniforms in US pro sport have somehow remained brandfree. If sport can survive and thrive to this point, and examples such as these still exist, there is still a slim possibility of maintaining some semblance of dignity and respect before games merely become interruptions to the ads.

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