New owners at Liverpool refuse to rule out selling the naming rights to the club’s new stadium.

This week saw the completion of the long and drawn-out takeover of Liverpool Football Club. The new owners, American businessmen George Gillett and Tom Hicks, beamed from ear to ear as they announced how proud they were to have acquired the club (or rather the ‘franchise’ as they put it). The intriguing set of events that led to the takeover - the last-minute rejection of the offer proposed by the DIC group - would have come as something of a shock to the fans of most clubs. Followers of Liverpool, however, have become accustomed to false dawns and collapsed deals and took the sudden developments in their stride. In fact, in stark contrast to the Glazier takeover at Manchester United, Kopites have embraced their new owners with relative warmth and only a little scepticism.

What concern there is, however, centres on a comment made by Gillett in the first press conference given by the new owners. In response to a question regarding the naming rights to Liverpool’s new stadium on Stanley Park, Gillett announced that he would not rule out the possibility of selling the name of the new ground if a good deal could be assured. Putting forward his position in the form of a question, he asked if the Liverpool fans would rather retain the right to name their own stadium or sign a world-class player every season? With financial experts predicting that the club could make anything up to £10 million a year by selling the rights, this proposal has divided opinion among fans. Some are vehemently against any such proposals and see it as a sudden move away from the club’s historic traditions, whilst others see it as a positive step towards driving the club into the harsh economic reality of 21st century sport.

Like most football grounds, Anfield was named after its locality and this provided an unbreakable bond between the community and the football club. The concern, therefore, is that naming rights are a small step towards franchise football, whereby clubs are not part of a community, but a brand that can be taken and exploited wherever the franchise owner desires. The notion of football clubs as franchises provokes anger in any debate among fans and the persistent use of the term by Messrs Gillett and Hicks had many Liverpool supporters cringing with embarrassment. The very word ‘franchise’ immediately conjures up memories of how Wimbledon FC became Milton Keynes Dons.

But such a drastic example of owner involvement should not be a worry for the fans of Liverpool Football Club. The Americans clearly have no desire or motive to detach the club from its roots and it is nigh on impossible to imagine a time or set of circumstances in which it would be economically advantageous to move Liverpool FC away from Merseyside. But, the very fact that this could in theory be done, justifies the debate surrounding franchise football and moves to detach clubs - even if only through the naming of a stadium - from the local communities which gave rise to them.

Liverpool, of course, are not the first club to consider selling the naming rights to their new stadium. Many clubs have already sold these rights either to fund the construction of the new stadium or as means of generating future revenue. Bolton play at The Reebok, Arsenal at the Emirates, Wigan at the JJB to name but a few. In the case of Arsenal, a club of a similar stature to Liverpool, the fans seemed to accept the move to the Emirates with relatively little fuss. Unless, of course, the lack of atmosphere at the stadium could be considered some form of silent protest!

Liverpool fans, however, are a proud lot and strongly associate with the history of the club. During times of severe economic hardship, tremendous success on the field offered fans a means of escape. And tragedies such as Heysel and Hillsborough have provided a connection between the community and the club that goes way beyond events on the pitch. But equally, there are few clubs whose fans are so accustomed to and demanding of success. A dilemma then indeed! Liverpool undoubtedly need revenue in order to compete in the transfer market with the Manchester Uniteds and Chelseas of this world, so what value tradition if it means ceding all hope of success on the field? Nottingham Forest are a club with a fantastic tradition, yet currently reside in the third tier of English football. Would Forest fans happily watch their club play at the Coca-Cola stadium if it meant challenging for the title and a return to the European Cup, a competition they won twice in the late 1970s? The answer is surely 'yes'.

It is often said that when it comes to football, Liverpool fans are an intelligent and rational bunch. Following Gillett’s comments regarding the possible sale of the stadium naming rights, the popular press latched on to his words in the hope of whipping up some sort of a media storm. Of course, this has not materialised. In fact, many Liverpool supporters have actually reasoned in favour of renaming the new stadium. Most are swayed by the argument that naming rights will help fund future transfer purchases to the tune of ‘one world-class player every season’. More poignantly, though, others reason that a new stadium will not be Anfield so why all the fuss about naming it something else. Renaming a new stadium is hardly a break from tradition when compared to having a new stadium in the first place. And as the new stadium will be in Stanley Park, no major detachment of the fans from the club or break from tradition will occur. So what’s in a name? Well, it would seem that to many Liverpool fans, very little indeed.