James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Is it really worth The Blades taking this huge step?

So what's in a name? Something in between £1m and £22m a season according to those whose job it is to track the value of stadium sponsorships in the Premier League.

Friday, 5th July 2019, 11:27 am
Manchester City play at the Etihad Stadium: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

However, because so many club's shroud their commercial operations in more secrecy than a convention of KGB grandees, the latter figure is almost certainly higher. Especially because, with governing body's seemingly willing to flutter their eyelids at every passing oligarch, sheikh or venture capitalist, the game's financial rules now appear so easy to bend, it will take an army of chiropractors to repair them.

The question of whether Sheffield United should follow in the footsteps of Manchester City, AFC Bournemouth and Brighton and Hove Albion by selling the naming rights to Bramall Lane was first raised last month, when it emerged some people at the club began exploring the possibility during the aftermath of the team's promotion. It represents -and let's not dress this up in PR gobbledygook or deliberately misleading euphemisms - an attempt to squeeze every last drop of cash out of last season's success. A willingness to agree, or at least accept, that there is nothing you can not ever rule out selling to the highest corporate bidder.

The University of Bolton Stadium: Dave Howarth/PA Wire.

The trouble is, many of the consultants and advisers tasked with overseeing exercises like this know the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is why, several years ago, Hull City fans were forced to fight a long, bitter and ultimately successful campaign to prevent their team being re-branded Hull Tigers. Or residents surrounding Tottenham Hotspur's new home are opposing a plan, backed by several powerful lobbyists, to alter the title of the nearby White Hart Lane station. You can probably guess what to.

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Of course, these ideas aren't exactly new. Arsenal tube used to be known as Gillespie Road before, in the early Thirties, Herbert Chapman helped persuade transport chiefs to change its moniker. But they are becoming increasingly common. And those who resist are dismissed as dinosaurs by folk who, because they discovered the sport sometime around 1992, probably know no different. (They are, in my experience, also incapable of identifying the boundaries between what should be made available for sale and the things which are sacred).

Before we analyse the creep and often malign influence of money in what we used to be able to call - whilst keeping a straight face - the people's game, it is also worth examining if United could even achieve value from such a transaction.

Around a decade ago, one of my friend's then partner was invited to attend a meeting between one of domestic football's biggest names and a global electronics firm which already enjoyed extremely cordial relations with the club concerned. It was during this get-together, she later told us, that a proposal was put the to company in question about purchasing the ground's naming rights. The response was short, sharp and straight to the point. "Why would we do that? It's already got a name. And no matter what we do, however many adverts or press releases we issue, it will never be known as anything else."

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Unlike The Etihad or The Emirates, the site was not being developed from scratch.

Bramall Lane, over 160 years old and with a history richer than the most successful international conglomerate, falls into the exactly the same category. So, for precisely this reason, the sums potentially involved if those petitioning for a deal get their way aren't likely to be worth the controversy.

There is a wider, more philosophical matter, to be considered too: the relationship between clubs and the areas they purport to represent. Inside their own stadia, clubs can do what they want; including renaming individual stands after businesses or, preferably, former greats. But outside, or when it comes to the ground's title itself, that is a different matter entirely. Bramall Lane and Hillsborough, the home of Sheffield Wednesday, reflect the city as a whole and their surrounding neighbourhoods. The 'DerekDeepPockets.com Bowl', for example,does not. That connection with the community would be lost. And, like the sanctity of our public spaces, should be viewed as priceless. Something beyond even those with billions in the bank. If not, then where does the march of commercialism stop?

Arsenal play at the Emirates Stadium: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
Will Bramall Lane be sponsored next season?