Benfica President Luís Filipe Vieira found himself in the eye of a storm recently, when Portuguese newspaper Correio da Manhã alleged that Benfica had sold the naming rights of the Estádio da Luz to an unnamed Chinese company for €100 million. The club swiftly denied these rumours, but the story still sparked some heated debate amongst Benfica fans on social media. Of the 177 Benfiquistas that participated in our 24-hour Twitter poll, 59% said that they would be angry if the club were to rename their stadium. In this article, Jordan Russell and David Pritchett explore this emotive issue.
JR & DP: Football stadia have held a sacred place in our game's identity for generations. They are the sanctuaries where supporters gather to rejoice in victory, and despair in defeat. As the old adage goes, football is nothing without the fans. Nonetheless, we have entered an era in which marketing has begun to overshadow the ‘beautiful game’ itself. To varying degrees, and for different reasons, many owners stand accused of having ‘sold the soul’ of their clubs. Stadium sponsorship deals are just one part of this.
When Arsenal moved to their brand new, state-of-the-art arena in Ashburton Grove in 2006, it had already been established that the ground would be known as the Emirates Stadium. This softened the blow in terms of their fans accepting the change, as their new home had never been known by any other name. By contrast, the rebranding of established stadiums tends to create more controversy, as was the case when Newcastle United’s St James’ Park was temporarily renamed the Sports Direct Arena in 2011. The Estádio da Luz would also fit into this category.
The stadium naming debate has also been raging in Brazil, especially since the construction of the stadia for the 2014 World Cup. Palmeiras are a prime example of a club that divided opinion when they moved into a new, multi-purpose arena known as Allianz Parque. Their former stadium, the Estádio Palestra Itália, captured every last drop of the club's illustrious history, not least its Italian heritage, to which the supporters are fondly attached.
Contrary to Palmeiras, clubs such as Corinthians and Grêmio have rejected lucrative offers to sell the naming rights to their stadia. Both have moved to new grounds in recent years, just as Palmeiras did, but preferred to maintain their identity and save face with their fans. Given the financial difficulties that Corinthians are facing, the decision of President Roberto de Andrade was both surprising and admirable.
If Benfica were to rebrand their stadium, they wouldn’t be the first team in Portugal to do so. Braga’s Estádio Municipal de Braga – known colloquially as ‘A Pedreira’ or ‘The Quarry’ – was renamed the Estádio AXA in July 2007. Nonetheless, a new name for the Estádio da Luz would make Benfica the first of Portugal’s ‘Big Three’ to play in a corporate-branded arena.
Incidentally, the Estádio da Luz is not the stadium’s official title, but a name adopted by the club’s supporters, reflecting its proximity to the district of Luz. Officially, the ground is known as the Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica. On this basis, some have argued that a corporate re-brand would make little difference, as the fans would continue to refer to the ground by its common name.
Others feel that the popularity of the new name is immaterial, and that the club’s heritage is sacrosanct. According to our poll, 59% of Benfiquistas fall into this category. Given that the majority of Twitter users are 45 or younger, these values are probably not restricted to the older generations of Benfica supporters.
In football, money doesn’t guarantee success, but it certainly helps. €10 million per year is a considerable sum, and must be the main reason why 27% of Planet Benfica’s readers are in favour of such a deal.
Then again, this figure is dwarfed by the €40 million that the club receives each year for the screening rights to its home league matches. Likewise, the club’s shirt sponsorship deal with Emirates is the most lucrative in its history, worth a reported €24 million over 3 seasons. Other sources of income include ticket sales, membership fees, merchandising, and prize money. On top of this, the club has made a vast profit in the transfer market in recent seasons, having raised more than €350 million from player sales since 2010.
So where would the additional revenue end up? According to Benfica’s Chief of Finance Domingos Soares de Oliveira, the club are on a firm financial footing, and are already “meeting their planned programme of loan repayments”. Would the extra funds be used to pay back these loans more quickly, to reinforce the squad, or simply to line the pockets of the club's directors? At present, 14% of Benfiquistas are apathetic about the stadium naming debate, but they might be inclined to pick a side if more information were forthcoming.
Of course, international sponsorship deals can have benefits beyond the immediate profits. A partnership with a major Chinese company could broaden Benfica’s global appeal, boost its overseas fanbase, and increase the likelihood of future marketing opportunities in Asia.
Luís Filipe Vieira is a shrewd businessman, who is no doubt aware that he must tread carefully, so as to preserve the image of O Glorioso, and maintain his standing as the longest-serving President in the club’s history. Despite the potential riches on offer, stadium rebranding is an extremely sensitive topic, particularly for a club with as proud a past as Benfica.