Against the iPro – Guest post by Rams fan Jordan Glossop

Last week, I was contacted by Derby supporter Jordan Glossop, who was keen to contribute a post analysing what he perceives as the negatives surrounding the deal to sell the naming rights to Pride Park Stadium to iPro,  for £7m.  I said that would be grand and it was duly delivered.  

So without further ado, it’s over to you, Jordan… 

The benefits of Derby County selling naming rights to their stadium are obvious and quantifiable – sort of.  The deal is valued at £7m over 10 years.  Note that this is not saying that the club will receive ten instalments of £700,000 in return for giving up the name of Pride Park.  That £7m figure is the size of a deal that may well include additional benefits like corporate boxes, advertisements and so on.  It is in both parties’ interests to inflate the reported figure and the true net benefit of the actual stadium element of the deal will only ever be known by a few inside the club.

However, it is safe to assume that DCFC will financially benefit and after all, it’s money for nothing, right?

This is where I disagree.  The value of the asset we have sold is much harder to quantify, but was undoubtedly there.  The name of the stadium impacts our matchday experience and our relationship with the club.  These impacts are harder to quantify, open to interpretation and often realised over a longer term, but nevertheless, they are still important.

Firstly, to those who say they wouldn’t have renamed the Baseball Ground but are OK with Pride Park’s name being sold – it takes time to develop an affinity to a name.  There is no record of mass protests when the club moved from The Racecourse, or changed colours from brown, yellow and blue.  It takes time to form a tradition and after just 16 years, Pride Park has not had the chance to match the 102-year history of the BBG.  Still, a good portion of our lifetimes have been invested in PP.  Those that treasure the Baseball Ground memories and the name may wish to thank the previous club custodians who never took the decision to sell it.

Then there are those who are OK with the decision because Pride Park is ‘soulless’.  Much to my surprise and annoyance, this view was retweeted by (Chief Operating Officer) John Vicars, as if criticising the stadium and its atmosphere is fine when it suits him.  The atmosphere at Pride Park is improving (thanks to both improved performances and exceptional work by a small group of fans).  If Vicars thinks that the atmosphere is lacking, he might want to look at the impact of excessive levels of sponsorship on the matchday experience.  When even substitutions and added time announcements can’t be made without an accompanying sponsors’ message, everyone in the crowd is impacted – even if it’s just a little bit to each individual.

This is the crux of the matter – commercialisation in sport.  To those that see every last bit of visible or audible space as an asset to sell off with no downside, they need to think again.  It might not directly affect the event on the pitch that we are all there to see, but it creates a distance between the fans and the club.  The ‘ltd’ and ‘plc’ image of the football club is pushed out and the ‘FC’ part of that image is pushed away.  Some will instantly dismiss this as soft-marketing nonsense, but let me explain.

For a view on a company that has fully gone down the commercialisation route, let’s examine Ryanair.  When you buy a Ryanair ticket, you are quite forcibly reminded that your contract takes you on a plane from A to B and nothing more – everything else is up for sale.  Relentless advertising, fines for breaking contract, even the basic human courtesy of queuing is now a commodity that can be skipped for £2.

The end result is that passengers compete with each other and there is no affinity or loyalty between the passenger and Ryanair.  With most companies, people are prepared to pay a little extra for a brand they know and trust, but not here – there is no loyalty.  Ryanair’s business performance is dependent on being cheapest and customers not wishing to pay more to be elsewhere.  When the experience is purely commercial, the relationship becomes a contract.

Football clubs are not like that, at least not yet.  Football fans have immense brand loyalty (to continue the business speak).  So much so, that non-football fans stare at us in bewilderment and, if we’re lucky, pity.

In marketing terms, this kind of loyalty is the Holy Grail.  Nobody is likely to stop supporting their club overnight because of a few adverts, but increasingly, we find that we are sharing our relationship with our club with random companies, with whom we share no history, nor likely any real long term future.  These corporate sponsors, who may well not be there next season, or the season after, or whenever team performances drop, are the opposite of the fans.

Some may think this has no impact on theirs or anyone else’s support of the club, but the truth is you never know until it’s gone.  If the fans’ sense of community and shared purpose with others’ present at the game is lost, then fan loyalty goes – and football dies.

For a view of where commercialisation is going, look to America, where this process is more evolved.  Stadium names include KFC Yum! Stadium, the Northeast Delta Dental Field and the Save-on-Foods Arena.  High-profile baseball players refuse to sign a playing card unless it is made by the right partnered brand.  The balance sheets might only show the value of a transfer between company and player, but what is the long term impact on players, the club and the sport?  All three have potentially just lost life-times worth of support.

Nor should we expect companies to hand over large sums of money, watch the name above the door change and then leave.  iPro’s managing director Cliff Bogle has already publicly declared his opinion on Derby’s recent managerial appointment and the reality is that companies invested in these ‘partnerships’ have a vested interest in all operations of the football club.

Derby aren’t the first English club to sell the name of their ground – and some have gone even further.  Cardiff recently celebrated a 1-0 win over their arch-rivals Swansea in a red kit with a new crest.  I doubt that the result would have been different if Cardiff were playing in blue or any other colour, but the true impact will be known better when we see how many Cardiff fans stick with the club through the inevitable drop in results that all clubs of their size face.

Of course, nobody expects Derby County to compete without any commercial activity.  Income would be severely hit and no players play for free.  This point is that there is a balance to be found.

For an example of good commercial balance, look at the main stand at Pride Park; giant murals of Shaun Barker and Igor Štimac dominate the view.   The fans see these on approach, a reminder of better moments watching Derby and an announcement that you’re approaching our stadium.  Below these are smaller adverts for Toyota – noticeable, but by no means dominant.

Commercial activity is important, but it should not be a race to sell off everything – the skill is finding a balance between the two.

Where you find that appropriate level for that balance is personal opinion.  Sam Rush has said deals like this are necessary if Derby are to compete at the top end of the table.  He wasn’t saying this six months earlier when the push for season ticket sales was in full flow, nor was he saying this when answering questions about sacking the previous manager.

In any case, the deal amounts to roughly a three per cent increase in Derby County turnover (assuming no loss of ticket sales), so we can’t really call it a game-changer.  There is undoubtedly some cash benefit in the short term, yes – but what we don’t know is what we’ve lost.

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