Epsom racecourse, home of the annual Investec Derby meeting, announced recently that it’s famous free viewing area had been rebranded ‘Poundland Hill’, and in doing so sailed into a world of controversy. To some, the column inches generated by the move may have been proof of the old adage that “all publicity is good publicity”. However, others saw it as Epsom sneering at its own customers, those that will gather on the hill on June 2nd and 3rd, the Poundland ‘paupers’ being allowed the crumbs off the table that bills itself as ‘Sport of Kings’.
Poundland, the Willenhall-based high street store, has in just 27 years become one of the UK’s major retailers, famously selling most items in its stores for £1, although in recent times it has shifted away from this a little. It has been a huge success and in 2016 the estimated footfall in its stores was some 7 million shoppers per week. There’s no doubt that although some people may denigrate Poundland and its customers, a good many people shop there. Much of the fuss around the move was prompted by an opinion piece in the Racing Post, written by Tom Kerr, who said:
“It is hard to know quite how to react to the news the famous Hill at Epsom is to be rebranded the Poundland Hill. At first, just laughter at what reads like an April Fool’s Day joke; laughter that anyone could be so crass as to name a free-viewing area at the Flat’s greatest race after a high-street firm synonymous with bargain-basement deals. But that laughter turns quickly to incredulity. For most of us, a summer’s day at the races with friends and family is about dressing up, letting the hair down and leaving behind the cares and strains of day-to-day life, not having them rubbed in your face by the condescending branding of oblivious corporate suits.”
Epsom defended the move and, having had time to think about it, I do question whether Mr Kerr’s decision to be offended on behalf of people who have to shop for “bargain-basement deals” might in itself be just as snobbish as the sponsorship deal he sought to criticise. However, he also makes a valid observation about the “condescending branding of oblivious corporate suits”, the kind of corporate guests famously christened the “prawn sandwich brigade” by Roy Keane, complaining of the lack of atmosphere at Manchester United’s Old Trafford.
All of this leads me to the following question: “When it comes to sponsorship, where do you draw the line? Are there limits on what fans will accept if it helps to generate funds for their club, or is it only clubs that are relatively well-off that can afford to be principled? Newcastle United famously ditched payday loan firm Wonga as a sponsor in response to pressure from supporters, who felt the use of their club to help target and tempt vulnerable people into taking loans with huge rates of interest was unethical. More recently, Joey Barton responded to his 18-month ban from football for betting offences to question the ethics of football’s relationship to betting, citing the 50% or more of Premier League teams who have betting companies as their shirt sponsors. Were sports betting firms ever to be prohibited from sponsoring teams I should imagine there would be a host of firms from other industries who would be happy to step into the breach, but that’s perhaps less the case further down the football ladder.
My own team, AFC Telford United, have been able to count on the support of Capgemini as shirt sponsors for over 10 years, but periodically the prospect of the club’s New Buck’s Head stadium changing its name in a naming rights deal has been suggested and discussed, as a way of generating additional sponsorship. Whether that remains a possibility is something that the club’s board would have to comment on; not all fans would approve, however, I’d suggest that for the club to hold their own in an increasingly competitive National League North most fans would likely accept such a deal if it helped the club. Would it matter who the sponsor was? Would Bucks fans accept a sponsorship like the ‘Poundland Hill’ deal? It is acknowledged that there are issues around the stadium ownership and lease that mean the club can’t ‘sweat’ that particular asset for additional revenue in the way near-neighbours Shrewsbury Town can; as an example, next month’s Rod Stewart open-air concert will be generating significant revenue in close season, when the ground would otherwise lie empty.
Do the Bucks need to look at more innovative ways of generating revenue? What would fans tolerate in terms of sponsorship? How about goal announcements bearing the name of a sponsor, or even just accompanied by the name of the player’s personal sponsor, as were heard when the Bucks played at Stockport County last season? Could that be extended to the announcement of substitutions also?
I’ve no doubt many fans will read those suggestions and recoil in horror, and I’d happily wager that someone, somewhere would utter something about “not being like the United States”. As any watchers of North American sports will testify, the coverage positively drips with the names of sponsors, and just about anything that can be sponsored, is. As a long-time ice hockey fan also, I am not only comfortable with it but also marvel at the innovative ways in which sponsorship is inserted into broadcasts in ways that you barely notice, but I know it wouldn’t sit well with a good many fans. However, is it time to think the unthinkable, and consider what possibilities there might be in attaching sponsorship opportunities to the club’s product, namely the game itself? Football’s naked commerciality is feeding down from the leagues above and has reached non-league – should the Bucks be looking for their own version of Poundland Hill?