With Commerzbank’s current sponsorship deal with Eintracht Frankfurt over naming rights for their home ground since 1963 – formerly known as the Waldstadion – expiring at the end of the season, the practise of clubs selling parts of their identity – such as the name of their home ground – has become an important discussion of late. Understandably, all sorts of questions will be raised about any form of increased commercialism in German football; the changing relationship between money and German clubs is constantly debated and in many cases well documented.
The deal in focus – a reported increased fee by Commerzbank from €3m per year to a sum of €3.5m – doesn’t actually represent much in the way of increased commercialism by itself, but is part of a general trend of Bundesliga clubs selling part of their identity. With the majority of Bundesliga clubs now having their stadium names decided by sponsors, should supporters begin to accept that their home ground’s name is no longer sacred?
Of course, there’s no evidence that this process of re-naming stadiums after sponsors is a phenomenon purely unique to the Bundesliga – there are a list of similar examples across Europe and the wider world – but for a league which is so often cited as a supporter’s paradise, where the interests of the fans (apparently) come first, are these deals going too far, and are they more prominent than in other countries? Simply put, does this increased commercial presence in Bundesliga clubs come at a cost to what, really, is supposedly the heart of the league: the fans?
A bit of context is useful. Eintracht Frankfurt’s Waldstadion has, since re-construction in 2005, been known as the Commerzbank-Arena, and given the pre-existing deal with the Frankfurt-based banking firm, an extension or deal with a new company – likely the former – would likely secure an extra €500,000 per year for Eintracht, which in itself shouldn’t be met with too many grievances – having more money is never exactly a problem. Naturally, the fans would like the stadium to one day return to its original moniker, but this deal doesn’t really change much, other than the amount of money a company will pump into the club’s coffers, and the length of time over which that will happen.
Straightforward, right? Clubs get a nice fee per year – which will allow a little bit of extra transfer spending, a larger wage budget or improved infrastructure – while the sponsoring company gets exposure to the masses. It sounds win-win. Except it’s not that simple; grounds are a large part of people’s footballing identities and as such measures which change an aspect about them will always prove highly controversial, and in many ways rightly so.
Eintracht Frankfurt aren’t the only club to have changed the name of their stadium in recent years – in fact, there was a high profile spate of clubs to do so time in the mid-noughties – SC Freiburg one example, with their Dreisamstadion becoming the ‘badenova-Stadion’ (it’s now named the nearly as catchy MAGE SOLAR-Stadion), and probably the most obvious example in Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion – now the Signal-Iduna-Park. Both changes are still felt among the fanbases of the respective clubs; fondness for the old name is still commonplace in both Freiburg and Dortmund. While for official purposes, the stadiums have their sponsored names, fans are much more likely to call the ground by its original moniker; in this sense, while it is a shame that official documents, commentators and some other fans may call the stadium by the official name, the real power over the name for a stadium lies with the fans anyway. Thus, one could argue that the gain of a few extra million euros per year for something as simple as a name change (which may not even change a great deal in practise) is worth the loss of an official name – the benefits can in some cases outweigh the negatives.
Identity is not something which can be palmed off for a slightly healthier bank balance, however; this summer, it was reported that Frankfurt fans were entering the lottery on repeat in order to raise funds to officially call their ground the Waldstadion again; the contract is due for negotiation with Commerzbank’s current ten-year deal only running until 2015. While this would obviously fix the problem for both sides – Eintracht get their money and Eintracht fans get their stadium’s name back – it’s a slightly drastic measure for fans to have to take, just to keep their sense of identity intact.
It looks that Werder Bremen may join the ranks of clubs to gain sponsorship money thanks to their stadium; earlier this year it was reported that club president Klaus-Dieter Fischer was mulling over a similar move to many of his direct rivals. In an interview on the topic, Fischer remarked “There are now many people, even fans, who say ‘Are they crazy at Werder? Foregoing millions to hold onto the Weserstadion?’” – put like that, it’s easy to see why clubs are happy to sell off part of their identity. The difference of a few million per year can be deciding in the fight for survival or Europe when spent correctly, and does indeed allow a bit more flexibility in the transfer market – something needed in a league still run on relatively tight budgets. Thus, stadium sponsorship, by the sounds of it, is becoming the norm in Germany; no fewer than fifteen of the eighteen Bundesliga clubs competing this season play in stadiums named after sponsors. That, then, leaves only a further two Bundesliga clubs without stadium name sponsorship; Borussia Mönchengladbach (Borussia-Park), and Hertha Berlin (Olympiastadion).
Mönchengladbach are perhaps odd in that their stadium has very little history at this point; Borussia-Park was built in 2004 to replace the old Bökelberg, but the naming rights were not sold. The likes of Augsburg, Bayern, Hoffenheim, Paderborn and Wolfsburg have all recently built new stadiums and sold the rights, while the other two clubs who remain true to their old names – Werder and Hertha – play in stadiums built before or during the 1930s. It’s certainly a lot easier to understand clubs opting to receive sponsorship for new stadiums given their relative lack of history in the new grounds – when the history of the ground goes back for many decades, it’s a little bit different.
But is this a phenomenon purely for Bundesliga clubs or not? It’s worth a comparison with the supposedly commercially-driven Premier League, where fifteen of twenty clubs’ stadiums remain unsponsored, while only Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium and Leicester’s King Power Stadium have been renamed since being built.*
The story’s similar in La Liga – only Espanyol’s Power8 Stadium carries the name of a sponsor in a league of twenty; while in Serie A, not a single club’s stadium name is sponsored. Just why do German clubs tend towards this model of sponsorship more than their European counterparts?
Perhaps an obvious reason for the uptake of this model in Germany is the way the financial side of the game is run. While clubs in England, Spain and Italy are often bankrolled by multi-millionaires (and in some cases billionaires), the majority of clubs in Germany are (it’s almost needless to say) partly fan-run, and so tend to have to develop their own assets from within. This is a point reflected by Fischer when justifying potentially moving Bremen over to this sort of model; “we can’t buy stars” said the Bremen president, “we have to develop them ourselves. As a small club in a difficult economic environment we have to stay ahead in our ideas”. Extra money – wherever that may come from – alleviates these infringements somewhat.
Aside from that, it makes sense to sell naming rights when the alternative – which would garner a similar sum of money per season – is increasing ticket prices to similar levels to other leagues. While the point about ticket prices is by and large overdone by now, it is cheaper to go and watch a game in Germany than in England, Spain or Italy – whether by a few Euros per ticket or something more significant.
Furthermore, selling naming rights increases the commercial presence of the clubs involved, which in a global market (both in terms of football and in promoting the club abroad) can allow the club to enter new revenue streams, which may not have appeared otherwise; to be fair, this isn’t just down to the name of the stadium itself – more a mixture of different commercial deals – but is a key part of the jigsaw, which clubs no doubt consider.
What does the immediate future hold, though? Well, it seems likely that Commerzbank will reach a new deal with Eintracht Frankfurt in a larger deal than the current one, in spite of the fans and their lottery attempts, while Bremen will no doubt explore the possibilities of stadium sponsorship, too. In the meantime, the debate about the pros and cons will rage on, but certainly there’s no evidence to suggest that German stadiums will return to their original names any time soon.
*Ignoring the situation with St. James’ Park, which was renamed a few years ago before returning to its original moniker after Wonga bought naming rights. Complicated.