December 14th, 2007

Why the Name Game is Simply a Shame

By Greg Baum
The Age (Melbourne, AU)

Soon, Telstra Stadium will no longer be Telstra Stadium. Like the the Knights Who Say Ni in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it will change its name, just like that. The Knights changed gratuitously, in order to infuriate. The change in the stadium’s name will have the same effect.

Telstra Stadium will become Some Bank Or Other Stadium. Previously, it was Stadium Australia, was the Olympic stadium, was Homebush. If you weren’t paying attention; you’re easily forgiven. Stadium names change now like the wind. So do the names of competitions, horse races. Even training venues.

Geelong renamed Kardinia Park every year for a while. Hawthorn renamed Glenferrie even though it didn’t play there any more. No matter: some fool techno marketing manager and his money were ready to be parted. Modern sport has become like France and England in the middle ages, endlessly whoring. You pay your money, and for an agreed time, it’s yours. It is a wonder any stadium bothers with a nameplate when a whiteboard would do.

Sydney’s Telstra, incidentally, is not Melbourne’s. To avoid that confusion, Telstra called the Melbourne arena a dome, though there is nothing remotely hemispherical about it, nor is calling a sports ground a dome anything other than slavish imitation of the US. For this gross failure of imagination, a sponsorship executive doubtlessly was paid a six-figure bonus.

Telstra Dome, nee Docklands, nee Victoria stadium, nee Colonial Stadium, will be next for rechristening. You can bet on it. Telstra bailed out of its Sydney deal two years early because it is “re-prioritising its marketing investments”. It is classic gobbledegook, meaning, “can’t for the life of us see how we’re getting value for money”.

There is, after all these years, no incontrovertible proof that naming rights works as a form of exposure. It is subliminal, companies say, which is to say that they take us all for easily manipulated fools. But this is the post-modern age; we have our eyes open. Colonial decamped from Docklands because surprise, surprise patrons weren’t rushing out in their thousands to buy life insurance.

Commercially named stadiums are everywhere and nowhere. Where and what is AAMI Stadium? Aurora Stadium? Toyota Park? Vodafone Arena? Bluetongue Stadium? Suncorp Stadium? Members Equity Stadium? And does it matter?

I think it does, vitally. A stadium name is evocative: the very sound of it tells many stories. By changing names constantly, authorities take away those stories, and so diminish the sense of continuity and tradition that animates and enriches sport. The wise say that to know where you are going, you have to know where you have been. But what if where you have been has been expunged from the record?

I cannot believe true Carlton people ever cared quite as much for Optus Oval as they did for Princes Park. As for MC Labour Park, well, look what has happened to the Blues since that bastardisation.

For the conceit of naming rights to work, we are supposed to forget that the stadium ever had another name. What value would there be to Telstra if you kept thinking Colonial. This is Orwellian. But Orwell was wrong in one detail in 1984. He imagined it would be government that imposed dull, bland uniformity on the populace, the better to control it. Actually, it is corporations.

So it is that we are supposed barely to notice that there are two stadiums simultaneously called Telstra. And as the Sydney ground becomes Some Bank Or Other Stadium, so we are also to forget that there was previously a Some Bank Or Other Stadium, in Brisbane, Fortunately, it reverted to QE II stadium when the rights deal expired.

Not that governments are not capable of stealing stadiums and stories. Ten years ago, the Kennett government proposed to change the name of Melbourne’s swank new tennis venue from Flinders Park to Melbourne Park, on the grounds that it would take Melbourne’s name to the world.

It was pathetically insecure. American Bud Collins, doyen of tennis writers, pleaded against it on the front page of this newspaper, saying none of stadiums in London, Paris and New York venues for the other three majors were named for their cities, that Flinders Park was identified with Melbourne anyway and that he liked Melbourne and Victoria well enough anyway and did not need to have it shoved down his throat, But the bureaucrats won; they always do.

There is hope, and it comes from an unexpected quarter. All over the US, land of the free, sporting organisations have prostituted their names to corporations. San Francisco’s Candlestick Park is as enchanting name as any in world sport, and impossible to mix up with any other stadium or city.

For a while, it became 3Com Park, then Monster Park. But the commercial appellations never caught on. Protesting fans continued to call it Candlestick, or the Stick. Next year, when the latest naming rights deal runs out, the ground will revert by statute to Candlestick Park. Permanently.

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