Rangers fans show their preference for the stadium's name as their team take on Elgin. Picture: Jeff Holmes/SNS
Around 120 supporters walked solemnly to the stadium, a handful acting as pallbearers as they carried a coffin draped in the club colours. One fan was dressed as a priest and gave a eulogy to emphasise the sense of loss. What amounted to a peaceful protest concluded with a minute's silence in the shadow of Newcastle's St James' Park, after the gathered mourners had described the "sacrilege" of the club's owners agreeing to their place of worship being renamed The Sports Direct Arena.
It became raw and emotional at Newcastle because the man behind the "rebranding", Mike Ashley, had the control and authority to go ahead and call the place whatever he wanted. The sight of workmen prising off letters which spelled the old stadium name on the exterior walls was too much for some to bear. Rangers are not at that point yet, and the suggestion that Ibrox will be where Ashley has another crack at creating a Sports Direct Arena remains no more than that, a suggestion. But if it felt cheap, ugly and inappropriate for St James' Park then it is no less so for Ibrox.
There is a tendency to believe that the eagerness to impose his company's name on a cherished stadium proves that Ashley doesn't "get" football fans, which amounts to a pretty serious underestimation of one of the 20 richest men in Britain. Think of it another way: even by proposing a name change at a major club he generates enormous publicity for his company. If he says he will listen to fans and drop the proposals: more publicity. While a stadium carries the company name: publicity. If he subsequently agrees to a deal for someone else to come in to change the name back, as Wonga did at St James' Park: publicity. He knows that Rangers, as with Newcastle, guarantee massive media interest and coverage. Ashley went through the entire process at Newcastle and, far from feeling that it had been bruising or misguided, he is open to doing it again at Rangers. Clearly, the whole thing was beneficial.
Charles Green has said he is open to the idea, too. Of course he is. Countless clubs have exploited the commercial value of selling their naming rights and Green inevitably will care far more about potential revenue streams than notions of history and tradition. He will cash in on whatever he can get away with. But no club should exist simply as a money-making vehicle, justifying all sorts of decisions and strategies on the basis that it will raise cash. Green has often referred to Rangers as being debt-free, with queues of investors lining up to plough money in either at a corporate level or via the upcoming share flotation. Season-ticket prices will rise as they climb the leagues and it is believed that the club intends to cap its wages at only 33% of turnover. Doesn't that sound like Rangers can be on a sure footing without hawking off something that means so much to so many supporters?
The thing with selling off naming rights is that while it might seem like money for old rope it also amounts to a free gift to every rival. Some Rangers fans have said they can live with it because "it'll always be Ibrox to us", as if the club might be able to pocket the money without anyone noticing any difference. It would not work that way. A new name would be inescapable. Every other supporter would gleefully refer to their ground only by the new name or some derogatory version of it, just to rub it in. When Rangers eventually return to European football it would be any new name which would be used by Uefa and carried in the international media, not Ibrox.
Every ground named after a company carries the whiff of a club selling the family silver, whether that's Arsenal at The Emirates or Dumbarton and their Bet Butler Stadium. Some of them do nothing but invite outright ridicule: York City's KitKat Crescent, Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Colorado, Pizza Hut Park in Dallas. Sports Direct Arena is no better than any of that lot. When he was writing on the Newcastle episode, the Guardian's David Conn talked of "Ashley's emporia, crammed much more with pile-it-high cheap clothing than actual sports gear" and reached this conclusion on St James' Park: "The Sports Direct Arena, even if this is only to prepare the ground for a genuine sponsor to pay the club £10m or so for the name, feels cheap and unworthy of the history".
Maybe Rangers were content to let the idea of The Sports Direct Arena leak out to soften up the fans for what might sound like a more palatable naming deal further down the line. But if it is true that the payment for changing Ibrox to The Sports Direct Arena would start at £1.5m per year, that is the equivalent of just 2.6% of Rangers' turnover in the last set of audited accounts. That's a lot to sell down the river for so little in return.
Besides, Rangers' owners are the new custodians of a name for which it is hard to imagine an appropriate price. The 1909 and 1971 tragedies – in which 91 Scotland and Rangers supporters died – mean there are few stadium names anywhere with the historic weight and poignancy of Ibrox. Rangers supporters are divided on the merits of selling the name but those who oppose it are right: you don't put a "for sale" sign on a place of remembrance.
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