What's in a name, after all?
When it comes to German stadiums, a lot of serious fans would say a lot. There is tradition, the relationship with the fans, and the primacy of the sport over commerce.
But those concerns appear to be falling on deaf ears as the trend of German stadiums selling their naming rights to corporations in multi-million-euro deals continues unabated.
In the latest, carmaker Daimler, Stuttgart's mayor and the head of the VfB Stuttgart soccer club announced on Monday, March 31, that the city's Gottlieb Daimler Stadium will be renamed after the Mercedes luxury automobile. Daimler bought the stadium's naming rights for 23 million euros ($36 million), according to the daily Die Welt.
The club will use the money to cover most of its portion of a 66-million-euro stadium renovation, which will turn it from a mixed-use venue with track-and-field facilities to an arena solely dedicated to Germany's number one sport: soccer.
Slow rumble, then the avalanche
VfB Stuttgart is not breaking any new ground by changing its stadium's name to that of a large company. The trend in Germany began in 1997, when the city of Fuerth's Ronhof Sports Park became Playmobile Stadium.
Two years later, Leverkusen's stadium was rebaptized the BayArena and then in 2001, Hamburg's Volksparkstadion got a new identity as the AOL Arena.
Since then, the process has accelerated, with at least one-half of the stadiums home to first-division teams getting new signage with names like Commerzbank, insurer Generali, or brewer Veltins.
"You can be sure that the stadiums that don't currently have a commercial name are in negotiations about one now," said Maik Thesing of the stadium Web site stadionwelt-business.de.
Seen from the business side, a powerful corporate sponsor willing to write a big check to get its name on a building brings many benefits. When teams or communities build new stadiums, selling the naming rights to companies with deep pockets can often take care of the largest part of their expenses, such as was the case with Munich's Allianz Arena.
If the stadium already exists, a new name can bring money into team coffers, money that can be used to renovate the facility, or, perhaps most importantly, fund expensive transfer fees to buy skilled players off other teams or pay the high salaries top talent requires. Average personnel costs for German league clubs were 29.5 million euros in the 2006-07 season.
"If you want to survive on the international level, you have to buy in the best players," said Benedikt Roemmelt, a sports economist at the Institute for Sports Science in Jena. "If a German club can't afford to stay on the same financial level as, for example, an English club, then the German club doesn't have a chance."
What a stadium gets for changing its name depends on its location and the reputation of its home club. Generali agreed to pay 400,000 euros a year to rename a stadium in the Munich suburb of Unterhaching, Commerzbank is paying 3 million euros a year in Frankfurt, and Allianz pays 6 million euros annually to have its name on the new, architecturally significant arena in Munich, home to Bayern Munich, one of Germany's top clubs.
Despite the benefits, many fans take a dimmer view as what many see as a corporate sell-out and the further commercialization of sport. Most renaming plans in Germany have been accompanied by protest actions by fans.
After Hamburg's stadium was renamed AOL Arena, fans brought a banner to matches that read "Volkspark Stadium Forever!" referring to its original identity. In Nuremberg, many were outraged when a local bank bought the naming rights to Frankenstadion in 2006 and it became easyCredit Stadium.
"Can nothing stop the commercialization of sports? Can these financial sharks do anything they want?" asked one irate individual in a fan club forum. "What's next, renaming Nuremberg easyCredit City?"
One fan group held a symbolic name change of its own, calling the facility Max Morlock Stadium after a local soccer hero. That name has proven much more popular.
Some media organizations have also refused to go along. The daily Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung refuses to use the new names in its headlines, calling them "linguistic monsters" and not wanting to participate in what the paper calls "product placement."
Matter of getting used to
But this trend toward new and sometimes temporary identities -- Hamburg's renamed AOL Arena has been renamed again and is now HSH Nordbank Arena -- appears to be going strong. Although according to sports economist Roemmelt, because so many stadium operators want to get in on the corporate game, the amounts they can charge for naming rights is going down somewhat.
And not every fan is against the practice, if it's seen as bringing benefits. Mark Friedrich, who is on the board of the fan club Stuttgarter Junxx, says he hasn't heard that much negative reaction to the new Mercedes-Benz-Arena, especially since the new money will cover a renovation project that will bring fans' seats closer to the action on the field.
"We don't want commercial interests to completely take over, but we don't see that happening here," he said. "Besides, Mercedes has its home base here in Stuttgart."
Thesing of stadionwelt-business.de said he thinks there will likely be less furor in the future as the marketing of everything in sports, stadiums included, becomes more common, and finally accepted. He pointed out that advertisements on jerseys and the advertising banners surrounding the soccer pitch have been around for decades and are not even registered by most fans these days.
"A stadium renaming that's happened in the past five years is still noticed," he said. "But in 20 years, it's likely no one find it objectionable."