'St James' Park' ditched by Ashley

Newcastle's 120-year-old ground to be renamed the Sports Direct Arena as a way of enticing sponsors

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The Independent Football

It has been too quiet for rather too long at Newcastle United, and with that perhaps in mind, owner Mike Ashley has taken the bold decision to redress the largely good news to have been generated by Alan Pardew's unbeaten side so far this season with a development rather less palatable to supporters, pushing through his long-stated aim to re-name the club's home, one of British football's most iconic venues. Goodbye St James' Park, hello Sports Direct Arena. For many regulars fans, that is grounds for divorce.

Ashley has not been averse to making unpopular calls in his four-and-a-half-year tenure, during which he has invested hundreds of millions of pounds in the club. When he first announced plans to rebrand the ground that has stood on the Gallowgate under the same name for the best part of 120 years he met with little but derision from fans. This latest move, designed to attract the sponsors who have patently failed to show the required level of interest since the idea was first mooted in 2009, is likely to receive a similarly frosty welcome. Ashley is thick-skinned enough to ride out the short-term pain in the hope of long-term gain.

Derek Llambias, the managing director, insisted: "These are very difficult economic times and the board have a responsibility to maximise all revenue streams for the benefit of the club." He added: "Stadium rebranding offers a lucrative way for clubs to secure significant additional income.

In effect, by using his own flagship firm, Ashley is taking the criticism it appears no other company is willing to be on the receiving end of by becoming the company effectively to "kill" the name St James' Park, in a way paying for bad publicity. It means, at this stage, no added revenue for the club, but it has been done in the hope and expectation that will be rectified once the inevitable chorus of disapproval has died down.

More than 23,000 supporters signed a petition in protest two years ago organised by Newcastle United Supporters' Trust. Llambias added: "Naming the stadium the Sports Direct Arena helps up to showcase the opportunity to interested parties. We are now actively seeking a long-term sponsor wishing to acquire full naming rights for the stadium."

In the best traditions of his retail background, Ashley, within reason, is offering an opportunity to "buy one, get one half price" given the imminent vacancy for an official shirt sponsor. Llambias added: "Our deal with Northern Rock will also expire at the end of this season, which presents would-be sponsors with the opportunity to acquire both the naming rights and shirt sponsorship deals."

Manchester City and Arsenal earned huge sums rebranding their new homes, but neither the Etihad Stadium or the Emirates Stadium is steeped in the kind of history and tradition boasted by the 52,000-all seater St James' Park, one of the few city-centre venues to remain in the top four divisions.

The Newcastle hierarchy have seemingly learnt the lessons after the lack of interest in the wake of their initial offer two years ago to share naming rights, when plans were revealed to call Newcastle's home sportsdirect.com@ St James' Park. At the time, Mark Jensen, editor of The Mag fanzine, said: "The idea of turning the history of St James' Park into something that resembles an email address absolutely beggars belief."

As news of the renaming filtered through late last night, fans began to give their reaction via Twitter. Chris Young said: "Hoping the rumours are just that. Ashley can't be so stupid just as he's starting to get some grudging respect." James Bunbury said: "Ashley has just about got us to change our opinions of him. If he changes the name of SJP, that will all be undone."

Llambias hopes the lure of full naming rights will stir interest. He added: "It has become clear that in order to make the proposition as commercially attractive as possible, a potential sponsor must be given the opportunity to fully rebrand the stadium."