How sport shapes the debate on public sector funding

All General Elections are fought over money and this one's proving no different, as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn lock horns over budgets and spending plans.

We will do what we’ve always done and fudge the issue, writes Adrian Pettett
We will do what we’ve always done and fudge the issue, writes Adrian Pettett

Within these arguments is the broader question of where we draw the line between the private and public sector. As public money comes under further threat, what is and isn’t up for sale?

For better or worse, this is a debate in which sport and entertainment sponsorship has played an underrated role.

The ubiquity of sports coverage in particular has helped normalise the role of brands in public spaces. And it has also forced policy makers to think harder about what works and what doesn't.

Arsenal fans have become used to calling "the Emirates" home, while across town, Spurs' historic White Hart Lane ground will soon be called something else entirely, despite the new stadium being built on the site of the old one.

There is a role here for communications specialists on both sides, to move the debate beyond the zero sum game of free markets v the nanny state.

Advocates of public sector sponsorship say it allows brand money to pay for things the state can't afford or chooses not to fund.

This sells the benefits of corporate sponsorship as a win-win, a free hit for the tax-payer.

At the other end, there are legitimate fears that each naming rights deal moves us closer to a dystopian world in thrall to commercial interests, run by people who choose not to understand the broader importance of our public spaces.

The roots of the corporate naming rights market are often – wrongly – attributed to American sports stadia.

Adrian Pettett, CEO of HSE Cake

The roots of the corporate naming rights market are often – wrongly – attributed to American sports stadia. Again, sport just amplified the debate and readied the ground for expansion of the idea to a broader audience.

The US is where the public presence of brands remains most stark. In Brazil, Indiana, the local government sold naming rights to the town's fire hydrants, leading to residents getting their water courtesy of KFC Fiery Grilled Wings.

But "that could never happen here" is a statement that rarely stands the test of time. For many cash strapped UK councils, few things are off the table. Branded parks? School playgrounds? Motorways? Fire engines?

What's the difference between a Santander cycle lane, and the Morrisons M25?

The unsatisfying answer is that we will do what we've always done and fudge the issue.

Brand names will be accepted in a piecemeal, bit by bit process that hovers between too much and not enough.

"He has bought fame and paid cash for it," wrote Mark Twain of Andrew Carnegie, the 19th Century philanthropist whose name adorns 3,500 libraries around the world.

It's an old game, it's just the players are different.

Adrian Pettett is CEO of HSE Cake


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