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The Name Game: Concrete Advertising or Advertising Via Concrete?

Motera Stadium, Sardar Patel Stadium, Narendra Modi Stadium, Mercedes Benz Arena, Emirates Stadium, Etihad Stadium, Kia Oval. Spot the common denominator. Stadiums named to promote specific brands — be it political or commercial — have historical precedent. And they are a sign of the times.
Narendra Modi Stadium at Motera, Ahmedabad

Motera Stadium, rechristened the Narendra Modi Stadium, in Ahmedabad, is designed to accommodate 132,000 spectators (Pic: Twitter, Gulf News).

The ancients, perhaps, knew better than us. They knew that the world moves forward faster than we think. That time is ruthless both to commoners as well as kings, more to the latter. That knowledge spurred the greatest among mortals to exalt themselves with deeds that defined greatness through time. The real kind of immortality, the one that transcends the idea of the afterlife by giving it a relevance among the living. We all crave immortality, don’t we? And the less substantial we are, the more we would try to wrest that idea of longevity in history with giant erections of metal and concrete.

…And so India now has the largest cricket stadium in the world. One that has attracted a bit of controversy, social and regular media mudslinging for a day or two. Then the great Indian numbness seeps back in. We have to live our lives. Lives that have their own pace and demands, the crowded markets and public transport. We all received a break from routine because of a famous and rare Indian pink ball Test victory in less than two days when the contest should have lasted five. But all’s well that ends with an India win, says the nameless Indian. 

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What’s in a name, after all. We may still end up calling it the Motera Stadium. It was never Sardar Patel stadium for most, except the data Nazis among us. A sporting venue is more emotion than a name plaque, you see. And Motera has emotion, Feroz Shah Kotla has emotion. Narendra Modi Stadium or Arun Jaitley Stadium are names that will eventually be sanded over by time, by the idea of relevancy and priority, by the idea of economics even. It is just a matter of, well time. Sardar Patel would be giving a knowing and telling smile now — he would indeed find humour in the irony of people arguing about the name of a concrete monstrosity, when his is etched in history in a much more absolute medium. Who needs statues or a sports enclave, bowling ends or the world's largest cricket stadium. Well, someone does. And based on the evidence, pretty badly too.

First, it is important to make clear that the modern sports venue is billed as a theatre of dreams but in reality is the theatre of the absurd. A dreamy idea is lost in realism woven by the economics of sport and spectacle. Words like ‘reach’ and ‘potential’ are used to sell ideas, products and much more. Sport is a byproduct.

The grandest stadiums of the world are now not known by their traditional names. The political, social or even commercial figureheads which laid the foundation stones for them to be built are no longer around. They are known by the corporate purses which fuel and maintain their history, keep them alive, and keep them relevant. Arsenal used to play in Highbury, for instance. The history of the club, and that hallowed venue is not forgotten. Or is it? The modern fan associates the London club with The Emirates. Of course, we knew Emirates. The airline perhaps never needed a billboard on one of the storied clubs in the UK to get its reach, one would imagine. Think again, though. £150 million for a 15-year deal, renewed further for a higher amount, is a hell of a lot of money. And the returns are substantial, and justifies the spend.

Modern day naming rights of sports venues is big business. The trend of selling it off to corporates began… Well, it's an easy guess, in the US, where all spectacles began. Way back in the early 20th century in fact, even though things really picked up post the 1970s with the sports economy priming itself towards the giant it has become now. 

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It all started in Boston in 1912, when Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox baseball team, took the name of the stadium owners real estate firm: Fenway Realty Company. Fast forward to the 21st century, many venues in the US are known by the brands which foot their enormous bill. Most venues are used by more than one team, staging different sports too, ranging from the NFL (National Football League) or college football teams, to MLS (Major League Soccer). However, most football teams — a small sport in the US — play and benefit from being at venues funded by a naming sponsor which came in primarily through the selling power of the stadium’s resident NFL franchise.

The trend is catching up in European football too, though the market is far less developed. The exception is Germany where 78% of stadiums are sponsored. As things stand, among the 98 clubs in European football’s top five leagues, only 30% have sold the naming rights of their homes. Only a fifth of the stadiums of Premier League clubs in England  are sponsored, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1 stand at 20%, followed by the Spanish La Liga at 15%. 

FC Barcelona’s home, the hallowed Camp Nou, was set to be rebranded last year. Nothing came out of it though, possibly because the move faced resistance from the fans. In April last year, the club had announced it will sell the naming rights of the stadium, Europe’s largest, and donate the proceeds towards efforts fighting Covid-19. Similar resistances have happened at the Old Trafford, home of Manchester United, Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu and Liverpool’s Anfield. 

It is just a matter of time though. Economists expect things to change rapidly in the coming few years due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the sporting economy. The clubs will need money, and out goes the name, and with it a bit of heritage. The larger victory is in staying afloat and possibly relevant. In the cutthroat money spinning world of professional sport, it makes solid sense.

It makes sense for the brands as well. Possibly more even.

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There have been many studies conducted on the returns sponsors expect, and the tangible and intangible benefits they receive in the US, the most mature market as far as naming rights of sports venues are concerned.

A 2015 study by a sponsorship evaluation firm, Performance Research, for instance, found that nearly 90% of sports fans in Chicago, Boston, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis correctly named stadium or arena sponsors without even having to give it a thought. This is what advertisers term as ‘top of mind’ brand awareness, a coveted position that companies would love to be in. This brand awareness cuts across not just regional consumers, but fans of the sport in general across the world. 

The same study revealed that 20% of US sports fans surveyed reported that they personally benefited as sponsored arenas improved the consumer’s relationships with the brands. This comes via the larger opportunity the sponsor gets to engage with consumers and potential ones via fan experience — through freebies, smartphone apps etc.  

Enhancing consumer experience is key for brands and it's one of the tenets of modern day marketing. And sports venues provide that besides adding an emotional connect which the brand can’t buy anywhere else. This translates to consumer loyalty.

A win-win situation for all parties involved, much like how it is in Ahmedabad, at the Motera.

Brand Modi is big, there is no doubt about that. No brand remains big or stays relevant unless the team works towards figuring out new avenues to reiterate its presence, forge new connections, maximize its reach. Cricket is a Commonwealth sport. The stadium in question here, however, is a global one.

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Brand Modi has pulled off a deal of a lifetime, ratified, or rather legitimized by no less than the President of India, who inaugurated the rechristened venue. The lopsided international cricket match, and the six to follow, would seal the beginnings of its sporting legacy.

This legacy, though, is a double edged sword. A result of your deeds is always measured by the yardsticks provided by the social and political setting prevalent in the future. We can never predict that, can we. 

The whole banter, or argument and counter argument about the renaming revolved around many things including the self promotion spree the Prime Minister is known for, his attempt at legacy building while being around and so on. However, the exercise is in effect a multi million dollar naming rights deal, which Brand Modi pulled off for free. The stadium was not funded by the brand, but mostly [indirectly and directly] by the people as all things “public” are in India, nor has a deal been etched keeping a timeframe. But the perks are already evident.

The returns, well, what better way to judge that than by the grand old democratic process that is still in place in India. It is this larger game that should be discussed, understood, countered, if the opposition has the will to build up a larger brand to negate the current disposition. Yes, it is unfortunate to say the least that the people’s mandate will be determined by brand building, temple constructions and statue erections, and not by nation building. But if the rules, or rather the game as a whole, has been changed, then logic dictates that one adapts. Much like how teams are trying to adapt to day-and-night pink ball Test matches.

The other, easier and sinful option would be what the majority of the population does. Be a fence sitter. Sit back, watch a short Test match, even shorter T20 internationals, watch India win, watch the country lose as well, and then let time do its business. And time is ruthless that way and never falls for marketing gimmicks and grandness of occasion and of the building. 

There is a Mercedes Benz Arena in Stuttgart, Berlin and Shanghai. The ‘original’ is the home of Bundesliga side VFB Stuttgart. It was built in 1897 — more than a century before the others. Before the second World War, the stadium’s name was Adolf-Hitler-Kampfbahn.

History may have a say in the Motera narrative as well. In time!

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