Selling out

Posted by Uli Hesse

Empty Bernabeu stadiumGettyImagesReal Madrid have so far withstood attempts to change the Bernabeu's name to the Estadio Fly Emirates Bernabeu.

So Gareth Bale is going to the Bernabeu. Or is he? You may have read that the deal is done and dusted, but trust me, there is an outside chance that he could be headed for the Emirates instead. Yes, I know it sounds absurd, but I'm not kidding you. It's absolutely true.

Three months ago, on the last Thursday in May, Real Madrid entered into what is known in the biz as a new strategic partnership. Club president Florentino Perez proudly announced: "Emirates become Real Madrid's new main sponsor. Two global brands and two leading organisations."

It raised speculation that Real might finally be about to sell the naming rights to their stadium. This is not a new rumour. As early as last summer, the Spanish daily ABC leaked that Emirates and Real were in talks and said the airline was willing to part with more than €50 million -- or half a Welsh winger -- per year if the sponsorship deal included changing the ground's name to Estadio Fly Emirates Bernabeu.

However, nothing has happened so far -- and it's unlikely that it ever will. That's because the club's members would have to agree to a renaming of the ground and they're not going to do this. As a writer for the trade publication "Sponsorship Today" noted with slight bewilderment last December, in European football "the stadium is seen as sacrosanct by many fans".

Both words -- "European" and "football" (soccer) -- are important here. Americans are sometimes baffled by the fact that Europeans don't bat an eyelid over sullying the players' shirts with crass and sometimes silly commercial messages (see: If the price is right, August 13) but then protest loudly when the ground carries the name of a company. In the USA, it's the other way round.

And such protectiveness is also primarily a football phenomenon. "In other European sports, such as rugby and cricket, name changes are more readily accepted by fans," as "Sponsorship Today" noted with some justification. (Though the magazine's choice of sports betrays a British rather than a European bent.)

This is the more surprising when you consider that, in Europe, the custom of selling naming rights started in football. Many people blame Bolton Wanderers, who christened their new ground Reebok Stadium in 1997. However, by that time the now-defunct Scarborough FC had been playing at McCain Stadium for almost ten years. And just in case you have doubts: no, it was not named after a former club president or player but indeed for deep-frozen chips.

The selling of naming rights reached Germany four years after Bolton's Reebok Stadium. In the summer of 2001, Hamburg's ground, the Volksparkstadion, became the AOL Arena in return for &euro15 million over five years.

This deal is generally regarded as the moment when selling naming rights became an accepted stream of revenue. However, there had been precedents. In 1993, VfB Stuttgart's Neckarstadion was renamed Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion, because Daimler Ltd. (the company that produces Mercedes-Benz cars) had contributed €5 million to the rebuilding of the ground. And in 1998, Leverkusen's venerable Ulrich-Haberland-Stadion had been turned into the shiny, modern BayArena.

PA PhotosThe naming of Bolton's Reebok Stadium in 1997 kickstarted the corporate involvement in football grounds.

However, you can't really compare those two name changes with Hamburg's AOL deal. In Leverkusen's case, no money changed hands and the club was called after the company, anyway. And the renaming in Stuttgart was beyond the club's power, because the stadium was not owned by VfB but by the city of Stuttgart.

This state of affairs -- that a stadium is in the possession of a municipality and a club merely the tenant -- is rather rare in the USA or in England but used to be the norm in many European countries. In Italy, for instance, only one single big club actually owns the ground it plays in -- Juventus.

This helps explain why the selling of naming rights is virtually unknown in this country. (In the summer of 2011, Juventus signed a deal with Sportfive that entitled the agency "to exclusively sell the naming right for the new stadium and to market the sky boxes and VIP seats". But for the time being the ground is still called Juventus Stadium.)

In the Bundesliga, there are currently only four clubs that still play in stadiums which carry either the traditional or at least a non-commercial name: Hertha Berlin, Eintracht Braunschweig, Werder Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach.

In the first two cases, Berlin and Braunschweig, the clubs are only tenants in city-owned stadiums. The situation is more complicated in Bremen, where the city and the club are co-owners. A few months ago, Marco Bode, a member of Werder's supervisory board, said the selling of the naming rights was "conceivable". But first the city would have to give its okay -- and then the two parties would have to arrange how to split the profit.

Borussia Monchengladbach, meanwhile, are free to sell the name of their ground but have so far been reluctant to do it. "Borussia-Park has become a well-established name for our ground," says director of football Max Eberl. "So it makes little sense to sell the naming rights to a sponsor every three or four years."

That may have been a little dig at Hamburg, the naming-rights pioneers. In early 2007, AOL returned the rights (because the company "realigned its entire brand communication") and the stadium now became the HSH Nordbank Arena. When the bank was hit by the financial crisis in 2010, the stadium was rechristened yet again and named the Imtech Arena. (Leading to the apocryphal joke of the fan who said: "Well, it will always be the AOL Arena to me!")

Or maybe Eberl is just wary of the fans, and wisely so. In those cities where a totally new ground was built, say Munich or Mainz, the supporters don't particularly like the corporate moniker, but since there is no traditional name to fall back upon the protest is rather muted.

It's a very different story where a tradition-laden stadium has been renamed. The vast majority of die-hard Dortmund fans stubbornly refer to the ground as the Westfalenstadion, the name it carried until 2005, while the sale of the naming rights proved particularly disastrous in Nuremberg.

In 2006, a local bank acquired the naming rights to the tradition-laden Frankenstadion. Perhaps everything would have been okay if the bank had kept its own, perfectly established name -- Norisbank. That's because Noris is an old, alternative name for Nuremberg and maybe, just maybe, the fans would have begrudgingly accepted a name such as Norisbank Stadium.

But in one of those bizarre cases of rampant German anglicism mania, the Norisbank became the Teambank and then introduced a product they called "easyCredit" (a type of loan). For reasons that remain mysterious to this day, the Teambank felt that easyCredit-Stadion would be a swell name for a football ground.

Tickets stalls at Bayern Munich's Allianz Arena
GettyImagesBayern Munich's Allianz Arena has rarely had its name tested, given the lack of a traditional background.

The silly idiosyncratic spelling was bad enough. (Similarly absurd cases are the RheinEnergieStadion in Cologne or the, I kid you not, rewirpowerSTADION in Bochum.) But the combination of an English name with a shameless reference to commercialism must have rubbed the Nuremberg fans the wrong way.

They launched a visible and well-publicised campaign to rename the ground after club legend Max Morlock and some particularly rabid fans decided to boycott their own stadium and only followed their team to away games. They say all publicity is good publicity, but not in this case. Many journalists went to great lengths to avoid the new name and there was such a level of hostility towards the Teambank that it returned the naming rights in 2012.

However, that doesn't mean that the fans got their wish. The stadium was not named after Max Morlock, and so the Nuremberg supporters continue to cast some envious looks towards Kaiserslautern, where the stadium is not only named for another "Hero of Berne" -- Fritz Walter -- but where this has even been made part of the club's constitution.

Article one determines the club's name, its place of residence, its colours -- and the name of its ground. This addition was explicitly made to prevent a renaming of the stadium. Many fans of other clubs admire this stance. However, it should be pointed out that Kaiserslautern, the club, no longer own the ground. They were forced to sell it -- including the naming rights -- to the city of Kaiserslautern in 2003.

So far the municipality has refrained from flogging the rights, but you never know. The city has debts totalling about €800 million -- that's eight Gareth Bales -- and some less football-mad taxpayers could start asking questions.

And so our little trilogy about football and names (see: Hope you don't guess my name, August 20, and Named and Shamed, August 27) ends on a slightly pessimistic note.


Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.