Ninety-nine years ago today, Highbury first opened its doors for a competitive match. History tells us that they were probably left hanging at an angle with work continuing throughout the season to finish the stadium. The move itself saw resistance from those in Plumstead diminish whilst the ne’er-do-wells of Islington were not pleased with the thought of riff-raff invading their parish every fortnight. If Arsenal announced a decision to leave the borough now, Hue and Cry might well reform to capitalise on their band name becoming a national catchphrase such would be the bandying of those words to describe the reaction.
It seems a long time ago that we moved to Ashburton Grove, will the club adopt the stadium’s correct name when the rights are renegotiated à la Newcastle, tagging the sponsors name onto the stadium name or subsuming the ground’s identity?
It’s a tricky decision, particularly if the naming rights change hands every decade or so; when will home be home? Unless Arsenal continue with Emirates as sponsors – and I have no information as to whether they will or will not – there is a danger that the stadium which they are trying to make more ‘homely’ will remain a soulless lump of concrete, plastic, wood and leather with some nice Arsenal wallpaper. The club can be proud of its construction and the method of funding whilst remaining at the top of the division but will it be a home if it never has a name?
The problem is that the naming rights is a market which is not unique to Arsenal in England but until others such as United or Liverpool tread that path, we are never sure if true value is being achieved. Manchester City’s subsumption of the naming rights of Eastlands into a monolithic regeneration contract has muddied the waters. Designed as a way of injecting cash into the club to offset losses, the Etihad Campus notion enables the club and its sponsors to attach any value to the naming rights which they so choose. So long as it is reasonable in comparison to other European deals, City can dismiss any attempt by the authorities to tie their valuation into that which Emirates and Arsenal placed upon Ashburton Grove.
A simple assertion that Arsenal sold the value of their brand below its true worth is difficult to argue with; Arsenal needed the cash to complete the stadium construction and heavily front-loaded that the Nike deals to ensure funds were available. Needs must, or needs musted.
For supporters this is grist to the mill; we understand the club needs commercial revenues to survive, as time progresses our money through the turnstiles will become less relevant. Broadcasting deals show no sign of diminishing in value and as the number of commercial deals increases, matchday revenues will become less important to the survival. There will be a point where break-even is achieved through these sources. If you like, this will be time when our money really does fund transfers, when the strict application of that maxim will be the truth.
As we move towards that era, tinkering around the stadium will become even more of a sideshow than it already is. Don’t get me wrong, some of the Arsenalisation is good; statues, motifs, murals which celebrate the club’s glorious history are welcomed but it does not make a home, a home. An updated observation from The Staple Singers might be that it takes more than a hammer and nails to make a house a home; plywood, oak, leather and mdf is not the entire solution either. I’m sure Pops Staples could have made it scan better than I.
As time passes, I accept that The Emirates is home but I find myself returning to the initial feeling I had; Ashburton Grove is home, not a sponsors name. I never laughed at people who called the stadium by that name but I wondered if there was an element of well, anal-retention in it. As you wonder about the upcoming deals, ideals start to re-surface about a sport which has lost its heart and soul.
Arsenal cannot escape from the naming rights issue, they are still finding their feet in football’s new commercial age. This is the first time that they have renegotiated the major deals in the new ground, in this increasingly rampant monetarised time. The financial strength is not there to be able to determine that £15m-£20m per season can be foregone as there are other areas to make up this shortfall. To be honest, I doubt that time will come in my lifetime, if ever.
I cannot get my Arsenal back, I don’t want the 1970s or 1980s Arsenal back either. Like all of history, our past contains lessons from good times and bad, which we must learn to progress to be a better future. I would like some of football’s soul to return though. An ideal for living, indeed.