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With the assumption of control of many football clubs by wealthy benefactors, we have become increasingly accustomed to seeing their whims played out in public. Whether it is the ruthless hiring and firing of managers or lavish acquisitions of marquee players, this is now a reality of life for the modern football fan.
It has also recently become the reality of life for the benefactors and club owners that unchecked spending will not be tolerated by the football authorities. With the introduction of financial fair play measures, clubs will soon be required to break-even (or at least get much nearer to it than many have previously), and this has had the consequence of driving clubs to assess their profitability more closely. Call it a whim or a reaction to financial pressures, but the recently reported comments of Cardiff City owner, Vincent Tan, point towards a bold new approach for clubs in the form of wholesale rebranding to increase appeal to the market.
In Cardiff City’s case, Tan ordered a change at the start of the 2012/13 season from the 'Bluebirds' traditional blue home kit to red in order, it was reported, to appeal to the Asian market for whom red is a lucky colour. Recent comments attributed to the Malaysian owner suggest that a further radical overhaul is planned through a name change to the 'Cardiff Dragons'.
Rebranding of this nature demands sensitivity to fan sentiment and legal and regulatory requirements. English football clubs typically have deep-seated historical links to the community and have cultivated an identity based on their location, fan-base, name and colours. Changing strip colour, for example, will meet obvious obstacles from fans of the ‘Canaries’, ‘Bluebirds’ or ‘Magpies’, and it is therefore invariably away kits which get revamped by marketing teams rather than the sacrosanct colours of the home strip.
Popular sentiment apart, changing colour is not, however, difficult from a legal or regulatory perspective. The FA issues Kit and Advertising Regulations each season, which supplement FIFA’s Laws of the Game concerning the basic compulsory kit which must be worn, but these are concerned with the display of club crests and sponsor and manufacturer advertising, not the colour of kit. Provided that a team wears shorts, socks and shirts with sleeves (basic FIFA requirements under the Laws of the Game), governing bodies are not concerned with the underlying colour of kit. Clubs should though be aware of the restrictions on advertising on kit set out in The FA Regulations in terms of sizing and placement of sponsors logos.
Changing name is a different matter. Clubs are affiliated with The FA under a given name and, should they wish to change that name, require the prior approval of The FA Council before 1 April in any year for it to be considered in time for the following season. The clock is ticking for Vincent Tan then if he is to succeed in having Cardiff City playing (potentially in the Premiership) under the guise of the "Cardiff Dragons". It is also no given that the Council will approve a name change, the decision on which is entirely at their discretion. No doubt the Council would give careful consideration to the precedent that allowing a name change of this type would set, particularly given the overtones of American sport franchise names in Cardiff’s case which may sit uneasily in their minds against the historic roots of English football clubs.
A final thought for clubs who wish to attract investment but at the same time maintain a semblance of control over the identity of the team. While the controlling party of a club has power to change its name from an operational perspective, restrictions on rebranding can be built into the investment agreement entered into by the investor in a club requiring the consent of certain existing members, directors or even fans to changes to colours or name. Much will naturally depend on the balance of power at the time of negotiations, but it would not be unreasonable for existing shareholders to demand proportionate assurances and restrictions from incoming investors who may not have the same sympathy for the history of a club.
First published in Square Mile