Are the suits intent on chipping away at the soul of football until nothing’s left, as I suggested elsewhere in response to SAFC’s new Big Idea, hawking the name of the Stadium of Light? Or does it not matter a jot what the place is called as long as we are given something to appreciate once inside?
Colin Randallthought he was sure of the answer …
So there I was, driving through France and feeling happy with life. I’ve just about persuaded myself (perhaps prematurely) that we’re not going down. I love France and shouted as much when I saw the first road sign – Aix-en-Provence/Toulon/Nice – that told me I was on the last leg (Toulon being little more than a Jonny Wilkinson drop kick from where I live).
Then came a succession of noises from the mobile, enough to give me the idea there might be a hot new debate on the Blackcats e-mail loop.
I’d better choose my words carefully here and say that once I’d safely parked the car in the next aire, I nearly hit the roof (not too hard a feat as my Clio is quite small).
The thread began with a question from Damian Kelf. “Just wondering,” he asked, “what are people’s thoughts on the club selling the naming rights to the Stadium? Personally I would hate it – even if it brought a shed load of money in. I hate having to hear a sponsor’s name everytime something like that is mentioned – like ‘Cellnet Riverside Stadium’ or The FA Cup ‘sponsored by Eon’.”
This was the first I’d heard of the plan, and the news enraged me. “What will corporate football do to us next?,” I asked out loud, which was fairly pointless as the only other living creature in the car was the cat.
I have to be consistent. Salut! Sunderland mocked Newcastle United when Mike Ashley heaped a ton of salt on open Toon wounds by renaming St James’ Park sportsdirect.com@St James’ Park in the hope of selling the first bit before the @ to someone, anyone.
So why should I be any more lenient on Steve Walton, SAFC chief executive (who may, for all I know, wear Philosophy Football’s Len Shackleton and Against Mod€rn Football T-shirts and read only When Saturday Comes, Salut! Sunderland and A Love Supreme)?
And I knew what my thoughts on auctioning the naming rights to the Stadium of Light were.
Plenty of responses, as my beeping Blackberry proved. But not many fans, or at least not many at Blackcats, seem to care as much. One contributor talked about losing part of our identity, and a few shuddered at the thought of the name changing every so often as sponsors came and went. Most were simply unconcerned, bothered only about what the team did.
“I would have felt that this was sacrilege had it been Roker Park,” said one, and his view was echoed by others. “I care very little for the wet dream for Blue Circle that we currently call home. It’s a lot better than some new stadia but a characterless place compared to the wonderful Roker.”
All of which Mr Walton may take as vindication. He was quoted as saying Sunderland fans would understand the financial benefits of a potential deal and would not be concerned by a change to the name of a stadium that opened only in 1997. “It doesn’t necessarily carry the same emotion” – as it might with Roker Park? St James’ Park? – “because it’s a relatively new stadium.”
He went on: “And it would only be done if it was completely right ….”
Now Steve’s talking. Completely right for the fans, for tradition, for integrity?
Er, not quite. “… completely right for the business.”
But then I thought again. What if someone came along and said: “Look, we like Salut! Sunderland. Can we sponsor you and rename your site Salut! Nissan, Arriva Salut!, Salut! National Glass Centre? As long as you and Pete and your pals keep filling the site, you’ll never have to work for anyone else again.”
Put it like that, Mr Walton, and we’re on the horns of a dilemma.
But rest assured it would be done only if it was completely right. For the business.