It will always be Old Trafford but the feeling around selling naming rights has shifted

“Excited to have our home named after a multi-national conglomerate,” said no football fan, ever. But plenty have accepted it as a norm of football. Arsenal play at the Emirates, Manchester City at the Etihad, Brighton at the Amex. Weren’t they once called Ashburton Grove, the City of Manchester Stadium and Falmer respectively?

Barcelona’s rebuilt Camp Nou will be the Spotify Camp Nou. That’s Barca who, for decades, refused even to tarnish their shirt with a commercial sponsor before they gently introduced UNICEF as one in 2006. And now, like most other clubs, it’s a case of whoever offers the most. Needs must, players needed paying — for that is where most of the money ends up.

Though it’s not always straightforward. Real Madrid were considering naming rights for their redeveloped Bernabeu stadium, then they weren’t. Tottenham Hotspur have yet to get a named sponsor for their splendid new home. Whatever.

As a Manchester United supporter, I didn’t like The Athletic’s story that the club are considering selling naming rights for a refurbished or new Old Trafford. What is there to celebrate? And didn’t Sir Jim Ratcliffe say, when asked about the subject a year ago: “That would be heresy. I would not change it. It’s always Old Trafford.”

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Part-owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe wants to drive up revenues to fund a refurbished Old Trafford or a newly built stadium (Daniel Leal/AFP via Getty Images)

The story has certainly tested the water of fan feelings on the subject. And the result? Well, it’s nowhere near the issue it would have been 10 or 20 years ago. Then, it would have been sacrilege, a commercially-driven bridge too far. Now, in one poll on the United We Stand fanzine which gave readers three options on the subject of Old Trafford’s naming rights, 47 per cent said it wasn’t a big deal, 38 per cent said they were totally against it and the rest, 15 per cent, were unsure.

Times have changed. I hammered Liverpool-supporting mates when their sacred Kop was renamed the McDonald’s Kop in the noughties because I knew it would wind them up. But now? We’ve more or less reached the stage where clubs put themselves at a financial disadvantage if they don’t sell the name of their home. And how depressing is that? All this just to help pay a future player £300,000 a week because £250,000 won’t get him to sign.

Old Trafford will always be Old Trafford to me, but what if it’s a new stadium with a new name and one that gets embedded from the start, such as the Emirates? Because sponsorship recognition is harder if there are multiple sponsors over the years. The first tends to stick, but even that has to be done carefully: Cellnet Riverside Stadium anyone? That’s what Middlesbrough’s new home was called when it opened in 1995.

Bolton Wanderers went with Reebok when the, er, Reebok opened in 1997. Company with local roots and all that. Now it’s called the Toughsheet Community Stadium. Tough s*** for them if people still call it the Reebok.

I travel to see United’s pre-season around the world and rare is the stadium not named after a sponsor. In recent years, that has included the Optus (Perth). Next month in California, United will play at the SoFi in Los Angeles and the Snapdragon in San Diego. In fan-friendly Germany, I’ve seen games at a dozen top grounds that’ve all taken the name of a sponsor.

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United will play Arsenal at the SoFi in California next month (Mark Leech/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

This isn’t resignation, and I liked that the Melbourne Cricket Ground, where United played in 2022, is still called that and didn’t need to sell a little of its soul.

I’ve also started ignoring the sponsored stadium names in England and using what I know them as since they only have one chance at a name. I completed England’s 92 grounds Football League grounds a few months ago at Peterborough United’s London Road. Except when I arrived at what is one of those quintessentially traditional British grounds with four floodlights and four completely different looking and sized stands, I learnt it’s now called the Weston Homes stadium. But not to me and probably not to much of their fan base.

It’s your choice, your history. There are United fans who still refer to the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand as ‘the cantilever’ or the East Stand as ‘K’ since a major section of it used to be called K Stand.

Everything seems up for sale in football, everything can be commodified for a price, but there are bigger issues to this fan: ticket prices for one. Even there, it depends which fan you ask. I was alarmed at the prices of pre-season tickets in the US last summer, but when I got there it was barely a problem for fans who’d bought those tickets.
If some good could come from a sponsor, such as subsidised tickets or maintaining lower prices for younger fans, then that would be welcome.

In fact just expanding Old Trafford’s capacity, be it by redevelopment or a new stadium part funded through naming rights, would be more acceptable than nothing happening, but we all know that when something becomes the norm in football then it becomes the norm, another revenue stream.

I can see a synergy if a new Old Trafford is built with a new name and I suspect it would be similar to what Barca have done, the “Something” Old Trafford. If it’s a company that is perceived to be cool then that will help avoid some outrage. Whereas the Glazer Dome might cause a riot.



If United want the best stadium in the world, they need to knock down Old Trafford

(Photo: Darren Staples/AFP via Getty Images)

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