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Spiers on Saturday: Rangers stadium rebranding will happen

A t the Rangers AGM in 2009, when storm clouds were already drifting towards Ibrox, Alastair Johnston, the then chairman, triumphantly stood up and announced: "One thing I can tell you: there is no plan to sell the naming rights to our stadium. 'Ibrox' is non-negotiable." He was wildly applauded by shareholders.

Mike Ashley's decision to rename St James' Park the Sports Direct Arena caused controversy
Mike Ashley's decision to rename St James' Park the Sports Direct Arena caused controversy

How times have changed. Sir David Murray and Johnston are gone from Rangers, the club has suffered liquidation, and now Charles Green is trumpeting precisely the opposite line – that just as soon as a decent deal can be struck, Ibrox will be renamed.

It has been interesting to gauge the reaction of many fans to Green's proposal. Some vehemently despise an Ibrox rebranding. Others are either ambivalent or feel resigned.

Yet many more are open-minded about it, in this modern age not appearing to be bothered at all by an Ibrox renaming, just so long as the money is good.

A part of this debate is rooted in principle; another aspect of it is simply about what sounds good. For some Rangers fans, if their historic ground is to be rebranded, such possibilities as "The Mercedes Benz Arena" or "The Deutsche Bank Stadium" might just pass muster. Not so "The Burger King Stadium" or "The Tunnock's Teacakes Arena".

"I'm a traditionalist – I don't want to see any of this at all," says Robert McElroy, the unofficial Rangers historian, who hasn't missed a competitive match for decades.

"But, having said that, I never wanted to see trackside advertising at Ibrox, or a sponsor's name on the great Rangers shirt, and both have happened in my lifetime. So renaming Ibrox might be the next inevitable step. In principle I'm against it, but Charles Green is nothing if not blunt and he has made it perfectly clear that it is going to happen."

One factor does cause some to feel concern – it is called the Mike Ashley effect. Ashley, who wholly owns Newcastle United and now has a stake in Rangers, ran into a storm of protest among the Geordie throngs when, 14 months ago, he rebranded St James' Park the Sports Direct Arena in reference to his sportswear firm.

Newcastle's ground has since reverted to its old, historic name, but not before a public outcry which Green and Rangers might at least pause to consider.

"There was incredible hostility to the rebranding of St James' Park among our fans," says Norman Watson, chairman of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust. "Everyone in Newcastle was up in arms about it. All of a sudden our stadium was plastered with signs and billboards saying 'Sports Direct Arena'.

"The fans arranged various protests, one of them involving a coffin being carried through the city. St James' Park is one of the great, historic names of British football and people thought the renaming exercise was tacky.

"Our view was, a guy like Mike Ashley has no respect for tradition at all. I don't know if men like Ashley and Charles Green are of the same ilk, but at Newcastle the stadium renaming ended up being a PR stunt that went badly wrong."

In fact, the way the Newcastle saga panned out, Ashley was thwarted in his plan. He didn't make any money out of renaming his stadium – a tactic Ashley hoped might persuade other companies to take on the deal – due to all the hostility.

In the end, when a new club sponsor pitched up at Newcastle last year, they looked at the public reaction and thought better of the idea.

"Last summer Wonga came in as Newcastle's club sponsor and our next fear was that we'd have 'The Wonga Arena'," Watson said. "But Wonga thought the better of it. There was so much resentment about it, and they ended up sending guys up with crowbars to pull down all the Sports Direct signs. So St James' Park it is once more. The whole episode was farcical."

There is, though, a counter-argument to all this, which many younger Rangers fans, if not exactly accepting, at least are willing to consider. Is stadium rebranding really such a big deal? If Green can pull in, say, £1.75m a year through the renaming of Ibrox, wouldn't that be worth it?

The truth is, nothing is sacred in sport any more. Ever since that revered baseball club the Brooklyn Dodgers was wrenched from its heart-and-soul community in New York City and relocated to Los Angeles in 1957, sports fans the world over have had to learn this: money comes first and all else is secondary.

Moreover, perhaps we are pretty stuffy in this country about the prospect of renaming a famous arena such as Ibrox or anywhere else. In Germany, where club football is every bit as passionately followed as it is in Scotland (never mind a mite more successful), fans are well used to stadium rebranding.

Hamburg feels just as historic and important a club as Rangers, with a not dissimilar tradition. But their supporters are now on their fourth naming of the old Volksparkstadion. The last time I reported from it, it was called HSH Nordbank Arena. Previously, it had been the AOL Arena and now it is the Imtech Arena. Older, more traditional Hamburg fans still refer to the Volksparkstadion, just as for many Rangers fans Ibrox will always be Ibrox. Yet the reservations and doubts remain.

"You see these stadium names everywhere today, but the key difference is that a stadium like the Emirates at Arsenal is a brand new stadium," says Robert McElroy.

"I don't have a problem with that. Ibrox will always be Ibrox to the Rangers fans – the problem will be that opposition fans will not call it Ibrox any more. They will delight in calling it whatever other name it is given.

"I daresay there could be some sponsors' names that are acceptable, but plenty of others won't be. Also, when the naming deal runs out, what next? Another name, another brand? It's not for me."

The renaming of Ibrox might not be for many Rangers supporters. But it is coming.

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