Semple Stadium goes down sponsorship road but is the field getting too crowded?

Hanging on to the name of your stadium may become the best way of standing out from the crowd

Fans look on during the 2018 Munster Hurling Final between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Fans look on during the 2018 Munster Hurling Final between Cork and Clare at Semple Stadium. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

You cannot stop the tide. But Tuesday’s announcement that Semple Stadium has joined the long list of sports venues named for a sponsor felt like the end of something.

Storied and crammed with the ghosts of a thousand long-vanished hurlers, the Thurles ground, like many GAA grounds, has always seemed at a lofty remove from the everyday world of money and the mundane business of sport. From the moment hurler Tom Semple and his committee raised enough money to buy the local field, Semple’s entire energy has been about the grandeur and magnificence of sport – and specifically of hurling.

It is easy to see why FBD, who have bought the naming rights for the next five years, are attracted to the ground and it is a smart bit of business by a successful Irish company. Equally, given the eye-watering costs of keeping intercounty hurling and football shows on the road, it is not hard to gauge how attractive the deal must have been to the Tipperary county board. Many a county chair or treasurer is probably privately feeling a little envious of Tipp’s handy windfall this week – even if they swear blind they’d never give up the sacred name of the county ground.

But you have to wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the litany of Irish sports grounds named after saints, scholars and patriots. Almost all named after men, with Countess Markievicz the only woman represented in Sligo’s county stadium, which ranks among the most eye-catching outdoor sports venues anywhere on earth. But you have to think the Countess would not be best pleased to have a company title, however august, preceding her name.

The corporatisation of sports grounds began, of course, in America but has really gained traction over the past 20 years. But it is nothing new. Fenway Park in Boston is not so much a baseball ground as a revered cultural institution – Updike’s pretty little bandbox of a ground, John ‘Honey Fitz’ Fitzgerald throwing the first ceremonial ball, home to Babe Ruth and one of the most mythical teams in American sport. As it happens, Fenway Park is a great name for a ground.

But the original owners also owned Fenway Realty. Across the city, the Celtics and Bruins whaled their way through season after season in the Boston Garden, which was at once an absolute dive and an irreplaceable gem. Of course, it was replaced. The venue of the old Garden became a car park for the gleaming new stadium, the Fleet Center (after the banking institution) and now TD Garden (also after the banking institution). Because it’s America, the sponsor’s name sticks.

The Los Angeles Lakers now play in the newly named Crypto.com Stadium, so christened after a cool $700 million deal struck last year. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images
The Los Angeles Lakers now play in the newly named Crypto.com Stadium, so christened after a cool $700 million deal struck last year. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images

On America’s West coast, the Celtics’ arch-rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers, now play in the newly named Crypto. com Stadium, so christened after a cool $700 million deal struck last year. The announcement forced mainstream sports fans, who could have cared less, to think about cryptocurrency. By attaching itself to the Lakers brand, it shoves its way into the mainstream. Neilsen Sports analytics estimated that about 3,000 articles were written about the LA stadium deal, equating to about $4 million in discounted media.

But big city mega club stadium deals are infiltrative by nature: the naming of the stadium is just the icing on the cake of brand building and community immersion in the city. And so in Manchester, the Etihad now rolls off the tongue much as Maine Road used to. In London, the Emirates has eclipsed Highbury as the rightful home of Arsenal.

Naturally, Old Trafford and Anfield in England, Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium are the great whales for mega-companies wishing to become the de facto brand names for iconic city stadiums – just as the Amazon Climate Pledge Arena has laid claim to the home of sports fans in Seattle. The Manchester United board have pledged to never sell the naming rights to the ground: that the ground is sacrosanct and that it is not about the money. And it won’t be until a billionaire company waves an offer of $70 million per annum and the wage bill is spiralling.

The naming rights of the world’s biggest sports business is far removed from GAA county grounds. But there is a connection. The Semple Stadium deal is nothing new. A full 20 years has passed since Cavan’s Breffni Park was rebranded as Kingspan Breffni. Last July, Cavan became the first GAA county to have a club sell the naming rights to its ground when Gowna’s home pitch was rebranded Clubspot Park.

The question for all clubs – and sponsors – is whether anyone in Ireland really sees the branding. All sports are now flooded with sponsorship: sports stars are, when their sports permit, walking billboards. Catching the consumer’s eye has always been the main trick. Now that the wholesale of stadium names is beginning to gather pace, hanging on to the name of your stadium may become the best way of standing out from the crowd.

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