By Tom Kelk
In the space of 5 minutes Newcastle fans, myself included, traversed from a familiar feeling of unease and tension - over the new sponsorship deal with payday lenders Wonga.com - to delirious excitement! The moment our managing director Derek Llambias announced that Wonga.com had requested that the ‘Sports Direct Arena’ be returned to its rightful name: St James’ Park, Wonga transcended the hate to love spectrum rapidly in the eyes of many.
But since that delirious reaction, a sound of derision has begun to reverberate around the media. So why this stark contrast? And why is it difficult to sit either side of the fence?
Skim over the deal and this seems wonderful for both the club and us, the fans. Looking at figures the deal brings in an estimated £8m per year, in return for the shirt sponsorship alongside £1.5m dedicated to the NUFC academy and foundation which focusses on helping people in the region. Furthermore, there will be a fans forum to discuss kit design as well as ongoing issues at the club, and to top all of this? We can all embrace the true name of our beloved stadium once more. Sounds perfect, right?
Immediately this was seen as a brilliant piece of business and PR from both Newcastle and Wonga. Nothing short of what is expected from Mike Ashley who is no clown in that environment. Clearly a stickler for detail and this whole saga has the unnerving scent of meticulous planning.
Mike Ashley has allowed the stadium name to be restored and brought on board more money for the club as well as Wonga, payday lenders who thrive off North-Eastern woe are seen as heroes for ‘understanding the tradition’ of NUFC. Simplistic perhaps, but a fair indication of the reaction.
Let’s consider what this means if we dig a bit deeper. Firstly, it becomes starkly apparent that we’ve all been taken for a ride with the initial stadium renaming. Sports Direct never contributed a penny to the club and gained a year of free advertising. Mike Ashley weathered yet another storm with this exact plan in mind. To find a sponsor, and then appease Newcastle by having the stadium name restored…. after the free advertising.
I remember reading last year that there had been no application to rename St James’ Park in the first place, so the Sports Direct title was just adopted by the media and corporate channels when legally it held no sway. Besides, I may be wrong but I’m not convinced that this will be the end of the ridiculous no-nonsense advertising plastered over St James’ in a fashion suited only to Sports Direct. St James’ may well have been renamed but we may not see the end of it being the world’s biggest billboard.
The pros and cons of this deal is a complicated issue involving a huge array of stakeholders who can argue until they are blue in the face, but the crux hovers over the word ‘morals’. Rival fans and some journalists have suddenly developed a moral compass, and some Newcastle supporters have lost theirs. But has the situation been over-hyped? Or are people correct to be up in arms about this?
This is not the first time Wonga have entered into the world of shirt-sponsorship. Was there such an uproar about their sponsorship of Blackpool or Hearts? No. Why? Well, the North-East has the highest levels of insolvency in the UK. Is it a wonder why Wonga wanted to get involved considering that only 23% manage to pay their loans on time? But still, with Wigan Athletic, West Ham Utd and Stoke City all promoting bookies; Aston Villa - a casino and Everton - beer, why are NUFC being singled out?
Don’t get me wrong, what Wonga do is terrible but is it that different to gambling in a moral sense? Gambling preys on those who want to win big and become addicted. It has ruined many a life yet you feel that if William Hill or Paddy Power had sponsored the club the story would be muted. Of course, Newcastle’s Muslim players (Demba Ba, Papiss Cisse, Cheick Tiote and Hatem Ben Arfa) have been warned that emblazoning ‘Wonga.com’ on their fronts would infringe upon their beliefs.
What Wonga do may be morally wrong, absolutely, but it is legal. People have the choice to use them or not. It’s worth carrying out background reading on Sunderland’s sponsor ‘Invest in Africa’ and you’ll see in that exists far more sinister problems. If the FA want to launch a full investigation into sponsors and put a set of guidelines in place I am all for it, but then again, the Premier League is sponsored by Barclays.
Moving forwards, quite rightly people argue that clubs need to be sustainable, and this is where Mike Ashley has begun to win over a section of the supporters, he has made Newcastle sustainable. We are one of the few clubs in the Premier League who are financially strong, and make no bones about it, this is fantastic news but it is these sort of deals that contribute to this sustainability.
But this sustainability is coming at what cost? It is true that Newcastle, and all other football clubs have a moral obligation to lead their regions in the best of practices but perhaps, unfortunately, this is traditional and outdated thinking.
This is a guest post by Tom Kelk. A passionate Newcastle supporter who writes about technology and sport on his self-titled blog. You can also follow him on twitter @tomkelk. What are your thoughts on this issue? Is this just good business from Newcastle? Comments below please.
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