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What price our sporting soul


by Chris JohnstonLast year when Viewed crossed the finish line of the Melbourne Cup and I tore up my TAB tickets, I became suddenly furious.

I was not angry at my personal financial loss, insubstantial and predicted as it was, but at the pictures on my television screen of the various VIPs and officials gathering around the victorious trainer and jockey. These VIPs, who would once have stood gloved and top-hatted, now wore red Emirates baseball caps to present the 'Emirates Melbourne Cup'.

I was outraged. This wasn't Emirates' Melbourne Cup. It was Melbourne's Melbourne cup.

Corporations seem to think they own a lot of our stuff, as it happens. The most recent incarnation of this belief is the trend for buying naming rights to Australia's public works — indeed it seems all our sporting arenas undergo quasi-annual name changes.

These buildings, and the events that take place within them, constitute our urban and cultural landscapes, and should be sources of community pride, especially in a country in which sport is so central to identity.

These stadiums should be, in the marketing jargon, our 'third places'; we should feel as much at home using these facilities as we do in a town square.

Federation Square in Melbourne, by the by, is sponsored by BMW and Optus, but its name and its identity as a public space remain; its angular facades unencumbered by corporate badging. Federation Square is just one example of how we can sell our events and amenities to sponsors without selling our souls.

Superficial as it may seem, the first step to reclaiming our public facilities should be reclaiming their names. Why should Western Australians, for example, abide names such 'Medibank Stadium' and 'Members Equity Stadium' when they could dedicate these public works to some unsung local hero?

Even when Members Equity's contract expires, 'Perth Oval' will never return — not least because it is now rectangular — so why not immortalise a name such as William 'Nipper' Truscott of the Mines Rovers, East Fremantle, and State football teams? Nipper secured Western Australia's first carnival win against Victoria in 1921 with a saving mark as the siren sounded.

Likewise Sydney music fans might attend concerts at Johnny O'Keefe or Bee Gees Park instead of ACER Arena, and Suncorp Stadium might be returned to its former glory as 'Lang Park'. Prior to its redevelopment as Suncorp in 2003, the park was named for the feisty Presbyterian clergyman, writer and republican John Dunmore Lang, and was nicknamed 'The Cauldron' for Queenslanders' tendency for, shall we say, 'spirited' barracking.

Alternatively, the park at North Brisbane could choose its moniker from the names of those pioneers who are buried beneath its turf — the site was Brisbane's primary cemetery until 1875.

Perhaps, instead of Hisense Arena, Victorians could submit the name 'Maddock', in honour of the stadium's new, internationally accredited cycling track. Sarah Maddock, the vision-impaired daughter of a NSW dairy farmer, was the first woman in the world to attempt a long-distance bicycle ride.

She rode her 30lb Conqueror safety machine from Sydney to Melbourne in 1894; she cycled through bushfires, tropical downpours and creeks to Brisbane and back in 1895. What's more, she completed these rides in a long skirt, black satin knickerbockers and stays, resisting the contemporary movement towards 'rational dress'.

These suggestions are not merely the ravings of an overzealous history graduate. Reclaiming the public's naming rights makes economic sense too. The short term gains accrued by selling off these rights are far outweighed by the long term loss of the public 'brand'.

Consider, for example, the value of Wimbledon as a brand. Even when we disregard the cultural importance of the tournament, in calculating Wimbledon's value we must consider the tourist dollars it attracts, and the value of television rights, merchandise and annual sponsorship bids; all of which would be less lucrative if Wimbledon lacked its historic and cultural associations.

The brand 'Wimbledon' evokes a whole range of associations with British taste and style which sponsors can capitalise upon. By associating with Wimbledon, sponsors are saying 'We're elegant, timeless, and sophisticated — we are British'.

Likewise, The Age sponsors Colonial Stadium ... erm ... Telstra Dome to emphasise its Melburnian, sporting identity. Will the stadium retain this value, such as it is, when it becomes Etihad Stadium in March? Will Melburnians view Etihad as a brand with local connections, or as a coloniser?

In 50 years, when Perth's old folks reminisce about watching the Force at a stadium named for a bank, will their children gaze at the Pier Street stadium with the same reverence we reserve for Subiaco? Will breweries vie with airlines for the chance to associate themselves with old ACER arena, that fondly regarded local institution? Or will it be regarded as just a local incarnation of an international franchise?

What we sell these sponsors is an opportunity to increase their 'brand recognition'. Perhaps we should nurture our institutions' own identities first — it's what the marketing pros call 'creating value'. Yeah, I know. And these are the people naming our stadiums.

Edwina ByrneEdwina Byrne is a recent graduate of Melbourne University with degrees in History and Musicology. She is currently trekking in the Patagonian Andes and hopes to work in publishing when she returns.

Topic tags: Members Equity Stadium, ACER Arena, Suncorp Stadium, Etihad Stadium, perth oval, federation square



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Existing comments

I get your point, but I do think naming rights sponsors do help in significant ways. Without such sponsors, less money would be spent on arranging the Melbourne Cup and the event wouldn't live up to expectations. This is because Emirates pour their money and commitment into such an amazing event. It's a bit annoying seeing the name changes all the time, but I do realise that money is required to keep things afloat - i'd rather see Suncorp Stadium turn into McDonald's Stadium if the only other option was having a bad or otherwise closed venue.

Clarke | 10 March 2009  

Well said and a thousand hurrahs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Thank heavens we have the Sheffield Shield back.
Naming rights should exclude established events and venues.

Judy | 10 March 2009  

This seems a weird thing to be upset about. When I think of the great sporting events I've been to - Australia's matches at the World Cup, Geelong winning the GF etc - the name of the stadium has no impact on my memory of the time. I couldn't care less what the stadium was called, and in fact cannot remember the ones in Germany. The name of the stadium does not have any influence on the memories created within.

Finn | 10 March 2009  

Bread and circuses was (so they say) Nero's way of pacifying the populace. We now have enough arenas in Melbourne to pacify several 'populaces'. An amazing coincidence - our community is going rapidly down the financial tube at a time of unprecedented entertainment opportunities. What next?

Bill Bradshaw | 10 March 2009  

Enjoyed this a lot. Hope you enjoy your trek in the Coca Cola Andes.

john fox | 10 March 2009  

So true Edwina. When we sell our history we have forfeited our future. At least, there is some happy news to report that some places are now named after Aboriginal people.

Ray O'Donoghue | 10 March 2009  

'Shang Ya! I want to be your friend'
That was the fashion of our termitary; in the gas-lit cellules of virtuous young men-
Shang Ya ! I want to be your friend.
Often I think, if we had gone then
waving the torches of demoniac theory,
we should have melted stone, astonished God,
overturned kings, exalted scullions, and ridden the hairy beast outside into our stables to be shod-
Such was the infection of our pride,
almost a confederation of Napoleons.
Kenneth Slessor's The Old Play

Greig Williams | 10 March 2009  

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