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Much to the football world’s amazement, controversial Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley has kept himself out of the spotlight recently. With the Toon flying high in the Premier League and pundits and fans alike eulogising the on-the-pitch performances of the team, it was only a matter of time before the outspoken Ashley once again riled the Newcastle faithful.

Yesterday, Ashley and Newcastle Managing Director Derek Llambias announced that they have renamed the historic St James’ Park as the Sports Direct Arena. Commercially this decision makes sense, but there is a lot more to it than just swelling the coffers. Ashley is using his sports merchandise brand to showcase the opportunity to other brands – this is a brave move by the Buckinghamshire based businessman by not only putting his own brand at risk, but also warning off potential multi-million pound suitors. Future sponsors will have seen the negative response from Newcastle fans, but this could work to Ashley’s advantage when attracting interest. By the time a new sponsor is found, supporters may well have already vented their frustrations on Sports Direct and will be more likely to accept a new brand.

Two years ago a similar stunt was tried out as the stadium was rebranded as SportsDirect.com@St James’ Park. This never caught on in the media or amongst fans and the stadium reverted back to St James’ Park. However, the latest naming rights opportunity demonstrates Ashley’s persistence and desire to really sweat the commercial value of the club. This is seen more and more in football as clubs try to counteract inflated transfer fees and player wages by driving commercial development. Fans may see this as a club “selling out” to greedy owners, but in reality this kind of investment is needed to sustain the high level of football in this country.

This type of decision is never popular with fans, but Mike Ashley has strategically timed this announcement to coincide with Newcastle’s fine run of form. This could help reduce the inevitable backlash from fans – although judging by early indications he has got a real fight on his hands.

by Oliver Bethell

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