FC Barcelona’s announcement last week that the club’s charitable arm, the Barça Foundation, is taking stadium naming rights to market to raise funds to fight the coronavirus pandemic, came as a huge surprise to many in the sports industry.
The Catalan club is offering partners the unique opportunity to rename its iconic Camp Nou stadium for the 2020-21 season, with revenue used to “fund research projects and the worldwide fight against the pandemic”.
This is a very smart philanthropic, yet entrepreneurial, move from FC Barcelona.
The club will not only help to raise an astonishing amount of money to support the coronavirus pandemic, but crucially, also reduce the reputational risk that changing the name of a much-loved sports venue can carry for both the new sponsor and rights-holder. This announcement is a communications masterstroke that could help aid the transition to a lucrative commercial deal for the club in the future.
Stadium naming rights have long been a controversial method of sponsorship for fans, even in markets like the United States – where the mediums of sport and advertising enjoy a much cosier relationship than in Europe.
When San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, former home to the NFL’s 49ers, changed its name to 3Com Park in 1995, fans, residents and local media vigorously protested and refused to refer to the park by its new name.
The issue came to a head again nine years later, when as part of a deal with Monster Cable, the stadium was renamed Monster Park. The public opposition was so fierce that San Francisco voters ordered in a 2004 referendum that the stadium must revert to its traditional name once the sponsorship contract was completed.
In Barcelona, where the city’s football club is not just a sports team but a cornerstone of Catalan culture, it’s likely that any commercial move would have been met with similar disdain to how Monster Cable’s deal was in California.
New stadia don’t have history by their very nature, so the commercial naming of venues such as the Emirates and Etihad is less of a problem. But as with Candlestick Park and 3Com or closer to home with the Sports Direct Arena at St James’ Park, they are rebuffed or simply ignored for historic grounds.
The threat of fan protests, negative publicity and even a boycott of products and services would make renaming the Camp Nou a high-risk sponsorship investment for many brands, with the global exposure needing to be carefully weighed up against the potential of reputational damage.
It remains to be seen whether these naming rights will be available on a long-term or commercial basis in the future, but by offering the rights fee from the initial season to charity, the threat of a PR disaster has now largely been avoided.
Barcelona fans will see the club’s sale of such rights as an innovative way of helping communities during a time of crisis and react warmly to the new sponsor, whose arrival may previously have been met by suspicion or contempt.
At a difficult time for many businesses, the fact that the rights fee is helping good causes will also make it an attractive option for brands who are committed to the benefits of sponsorship but are wary of how a major new marketing investment may look to their employees and shareholders at a time of global crisis.
The announcement of this initiative has also helped to generate positive headlines for FC Barcelona around the world and put the naming rights opportunity firmly on the agenda for brands. Whilst the availability of sponsorship rights is often the subject of sports business pages, it is highly unusual for them to be the lead story on the BBC Sport website.
Barcelona, of course, are experts when it comes to using sponsorship rights for the benefit of charitable causes.
The club’s iconic blue and red kit had remained clean of branding until 2004, when it signed a unique partnership with UNICEF that saw the children’s charity paid €1.5m a year by Barcelona to appear on the front of its shirt.
That agreement helped pave the way for future commercial sponsorship, with the Qatar Foundation in 2010 becoming the first shirt sponsor in Barcelona’s 111-year history.
That deal, reportedly worth €150m, was at the time the largest shirt sponsorship deal in football history and has been since followed by lucrative agreements with Qatar Airways and now Rakuten.
Time will tell whether the Camp Nou naming rights go on to become equally lucrative for both the charities initially involved and Barcelona’s future sponsorship revenue. But the initial signs are that this is a win-win situation for all parties, and the club should be applauded for a smart move that maximises their assets for the greater good, whilst solving a commercial and communications challenge.
With only a quarter of the Premier League’s 20 stadia currently bearing the name of a sponsor, there will be many watching on here in the UK with interest.