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The City or the Tiger? Heritage and Team Nicknames

For a great many reasons, names are strongly linked to heritage.  Whether it is our own individual names – which may carry the legacies of family or faith – the names of streets, of places, of communities, of states and regions and so on, the benefits (or burdens) of heritage are often front and centre.

The relationship between names and sporting heritage is strong as well.  Often times, a stadium or venue is linked to heritage – or, over time, acquires a heritage.  Perhaps in recent years, with widespread use of naming rights, we have become somewhat used to the de-linking of sport heritage and names – though, the transition from a heritage name to a corporate name can sometimes inspire resistance, as was the case with the re-naming of St. James’ Park in Newcastle.  Team nicknames as well are part and parcel of heritage – sometimes expressly linked to the history and culture of a region (my hometown Edmonton Oilers were named in honour of the role of oil in the province’s history), while other times the nicknames have a lengthy history and, as such, are considered traditional.

It is with this in mind that the story about the name change of Hull City FC to Hull City “Tigers” – and the debate that ensued – caught my attention.  From what I understand, the name “Tigers” has been the informal nickname of the club for some time because of the colour pattern of their uniforms – much like Newcastle has been called the “Magpies” because of the black and white stripes of the jerseys – but that the name was never institutionalized.  As such, there is a heritage to the “tigers” nickname – it wasn’t picked at random, after all – but that the official team name was always Hull City or (as the linked article explains) simply “City.”

What I find interesting is why the owner and his marketing team have decided to formalize the “tigers” nickname.  Simply put, he is banking that the “tigers” will resonate globally, that it helps to separate Hull from its EPL rivals in a global marketplace, and that tigers in other markets – such as India – are more culturally relevant.  To quote from the article:

Nearly half of the clubs in the Premier League are called City or United, but you probably think of Manchester City or Manchester United if you’re outside England and hear those names.  It’s a global game now, with a pretty saturated market and plenty of competition….For example, India has one of the biggest populations in the world, with a huge appetite for sport and a growing interest in football. A teenager on the streets of Mumbai might not know the difference between, say, Newcastle, Aston Villa and Hull. But he knows the word tiger, which has really positive connotations in India – as proud, noble, aggressive and strong.”

What is fascinating about this is how the team’s heritage is seen as both a global marketing opportunity and a burden.  On the one hand, the fact that the club supporters have informally used the “tigers” nickname for many is a benefit that may resonate globally and separate the club from its rivals.  Essentially, it is formalizing and institutionalizing an informal heritage that has existed for years. On the other hand, the team’s “proper” name – which, too, has a long history and heritage – was seen as too local and too common and, as such, burdened the club internationally.

I would suggest – though I don’t know this for certain – that an animal nickname, such as tigers, perhaps too closely resembles American sport or other franchise sports (such as the IPL) and lacks a certain authenticity, as well as the public trust/connection to community that is traditionally view as part of English football. Perhaps this is part of the local resistance to the name change?

It seems that the name change is formality at this point – though, the article does warn that a re-branding that discards local traditional heritages in order to reach broader markets may not be entirely successful, as has thus far been the case with Cardiff’s uniform changes.  It will be interesting to see if Hull’s name change has any long-term consequences, or if fans will embrace this global gambit both at home and abroad.  

Site Review: St. James’ Park Tour – Newcastle, UK

Throughout the tenure of this blog, I hope to discuss some of the sport heritage sites I have been able to visit over the years.  While I have termed these “reviews,” I am perhaps less preoccupied with a more Trip-Advisor-esque “should you visit here?” kind of commentary.  Rather, I am interested in what is presented, how it is presented, and what kinds of heritages are highlighted (and ignored).  Of course, praise/critique may find its way in to this commentary, but I hope to highlight more about what sport heritage these sites present and how they present them.

The tour of Newcastle United’s home ground, St. James’ Park, is the focus of this site review. If you are not familiar with the ground, its history, and the recent controversy over its name change (at the time of the tour in 2012 it was called Sports Direct Arena – though the corporate name has since been abandoned and the original St. James’ name has been re-instated), there’s a good backgrounder available here.  Needless to say, it is one of the largest stadiums in Premiership football and, through various incarnations, has been used by Newcastle United Football Club (NUFC) for well over a century.

If you have ever been on a stadium tour, most tend to follow a very similar pattern.  They are meant to reveal something of the “backstage” of a familiar venue, providing the both the dedicated fan and curious observer a chance to see places not normally accessible to the general public.  Therefore, most stadium tours (which almost invariably begin and end at the team shop) will visit the luxury suites, the media centre, some of the other private rooms and hospitality areas, the view from the “best seats in the house,” and so on.  Many tours will allow access to the change/dressing rooms, particularly in the off-season, and some will allow access next to (though, in my experience, never on) the playing surface.  Some tours will have a subtle sales pitch (mentioning that particular places in the stadium are available for private rentals, for example), and most venues will offer tours year-round and often on a daily basis, depending on demand.  Stadium tours have garnered some academic interest (including from yours truly), though a great place to start is with Gammon & Fear’s research about tours of Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

The tour of St. James’ Park was, really, no different than other stadium tours in terms of pattern – though, I did find it probably the best stadium tour I have ever experienced. Perhaps this is because I had a bit of nostalgia about the place.  I lived not far from it while doing my Masters degree, attended a few games while living in Newcastle, and subsequently became a fan – albeit a casual one if compared with many of my fellow tour patrons.  The guide was also a local, long-time fan from Jarrow, as well as an employee of the club, so he could tell many “unofficial” stories about players, teams, and his own life-long spectating experiences.  In many ways, because the guide didn’t appear to follow a team-mandated script, his commentary felt intimate and authentic.  For example, he kept referring to the venue as “St. James’ Park” – and even said that “they” (seemingly, the team owners and management) wanted him to use corporate “Sports Direct” name, though he refused.  There has been some research (albeit in a very different context) that suggested that first-hand commentaries about a location – in other words, the personal narrative of the guide’s experiences there – may be more important for visitors than seeing the toured venue itself. I suppose this combination of my own background and a guide that was really and truly a team supporter (even going so far as to criticize the team’s recent performance at points during the tour) made the tour something very special.  It didn’t feel like the regular, old Wednesday afternoon tour, if that makes sense.

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(John, our guide, beginning his tour of St. James’ Park.)

One of the other aspect that made this tour memorable was the sheer level of access the tour provided.  Indeed, the tour did follow a familiar pattern in terms of visited locations, but we did get to linger in both the home and visitor changing rooms, the pitch-side visit went around to the other side of the field (along the touch line, of course), and the guide even allowed visitors to sit in the players’ chairs along the sidelines. Again, I’m not sure if this was standard for the tours – or if it was just our guide – but rarely have I experienced a more physically accessible tour.

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(In the tunnel, St. James’ Park)

In many ways, the tour felt like it was of a treasured heritage structure – and important symbol in the community – and not just a big, modern football stadium.  Many of the artefacts on the walls in the venue re-enforced the legacy of the stadium (such as old jerseys and photos of players and of the stadium), and that the present physical incarnation was, in some ways, repository for that history and those memories.  Of course, our guide was very good at weaving his own heritage into that of the stadium, though I would hardly call him a weepy nostalgist.  He re-enforced that many of the decisions – even the name change – are simply part managing a contemporary club, one that needs to compete for labour in a global marketplace.  Similarly, when speaking about the changes to the city proper, it was one mixed with pride and sadness.  Certainly, Newcastle appears to be a city on the rise – and has become much more cosmopolitan, even in the dozen years since I had lived there.  But, those changes have come at a price, and changes such as the demolition of the near-by Newcastle Breweries (and the fact that Newcastle Brown is now brewed outside of Newcastle itself) can be challenging for long-time residents. In some ways, the tour re-enforced that the stadium – as a symbol of the team – would be ever present, even as the city around it changed.