No one upstaged Carla Bruni-Sarkozy during her visit to London last week, but Arsenal’s Emirates stadium did not do badly. Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown posed on the pitch and held a press conference at the north London football club – chosen because of its French manager and largely French-speaking dressing room.

The occasion provided many free mentions for Emirates, the Dubai-owned airline, which paid more than £100m to give its name to the stadium. Given how smoothly the Emirates brand has slipped into sporting conversation, it is extraordinary that English football, so ruthlessly commercial in everything else, took so long to tumble to stadium naming rights.

Some other English clubs have sold their stadium names to corporate sponsors – Bolton Wanderers play at the Reebok, Wigan Athletic at the JJB – but American sports teams have been doing it for far longer.

The first sports naming rights deal was in 1971, when Schaefer Brewing paid the New England Patriots $150,000 to name their football stadium after the company, according to a paper by the US academics John Crompton and Dennis Howard. By 1997, a third of America’s leading sports stadiums were named after companies. It was 70 per cent by 2002.

What is curious about the UK’s stadium slowness is that British football, cricket and rugby teams have been happily plastering their shirts with corporate logos for years, something regarded, equally curiously, as distasteful in US sport.

Whatever the cultural differences, others are continuing what sport started. How, for example, would you feel about catching the train from Coca-Cola station or travelling to work on the Google line? It is already happening. The Dubai Metro, currently under construction, is calling for bids from companies to put their names to stations and lines.

Naming rights are not new. The Washington Post suggested last year that they dated back to 1638 when John Harvard bequeathed money and books to New College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, to create “perhaps the most prestigious educational brand in the United States”.

The mother country can beat that by almost 400 years. In 1260, John Balliol provided accommodation in Oxford to some poor students, which led to the foundation of Balliol College, Oxford in 1263. Or possibly later. The college engagingly admits “there is actually no evidence for such precision”, but 1263 is handy because it allows Balliol to claim it is older than Merton College, Oxford, founded by another naming rights pioneer, Walter de Merton, in 1264.

Today, universities in many countries name themselves, their libraries and their professorial chairs after sponsors without a thought.

Others are cashing in. The town of Halfway, Oregon, agreed to rename itself for the duration of 2000 in return for a donation from an internet company of that name.

How far should naming rights go? In a free market, we should take a robust approach. How big a leap is it from plastering stations and trains with advertising to naming them after the companies? If the money produces a better service, does it matter what it is called?

Many people will insist on drawing a line – at the school gate, for example. Too late. In the US, schools already offer companies naming rights over their facilities.

Children’s hospitals would be a step too far, surely? No, the Mattel Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles and the Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, are both named after toy company benefactors.

The Columbus Children’s Hospital in Ohio is now the Nationwide, after the insurance company that made a handsome donation. There were protests over the hospital’s naming of the Abercrombie & Fitch accident and emergency department, but that was because of the clothing retailer’s racy advertising.

In the UK, companies are to be allowed to sponsor National Health Service activities such as “get-fit clubs” but not facilities. I am not sure, anyway, which company would want to associate itself with my local NHS emergency department – Hammer horror films, possibly.

This is the problem with naming rights: one of the parties could end up regretting it. The Houston Astros had to get court approval to undo the 30-year agreement to call its stadium Enron Field.

Do naming rights make a difference to sales? Boutros Boutros, Emirates’ senior vice-president, says naming rights, like all advertising, are not an exact science. Arsenal have an international following so people do talk about the stadium everywhere.

It helps that it was newly built. Fans would never have called Highbury, Arsenal’s old home, anything else, just as the people of San Francisco ignored two successive corporate names for Candlestick Park stadium. They even voted for a proposition that it should never have a corporate name again. Some things are sacred.

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