Protecting English football’s heritage: Hull City v Hull Tigers - Entry A

Published 27 August 2014

Protecting English football’s heritage: Hull City v Hull Tigers - Entry A

Richard Bush writes how, as a football fan, he fully sympathised with the horror expressed by Hull City’s fans (or at least a vocal number of them) to last season’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt by the club’s owners to change the club’s name to ‘Hull Tigers’.1

The difficult balance in the modern game

 
Indeed if my club, Tottenham Hotspur, came up with a proposal to change its name to, say, ‘The Tottenham Fighting Cocks’, I’d be marching up to White Hart Lane with a hastily-constructed placard in an instant.
 
That said, as a professional working in the industry, I can equally understand the desire of Hull City’s owners to seek to maximise the club’s commercial revenue and international profile. Speaking in an interview in September 2013,2 the club’s Chairman, Dr Assem Allam, stated:
 
"As a businessman I am preparing the club to go globally selling merchandise. To do it you want a shorter name, and you drop the words which don't mean anything and are common… In a few years many clubs will follow and change their names… – remember this discussion... City, Town, County: these [names] are meaningless.
 
Fortunately, as a Spurs fan, it appears I have nothing to worry about if Spurs’ Brand Guidelines are anything to go by3:
 
In a world full of Uniteds, Citys and Rovers, there is only One Hotspur and therefore the Club should always be referred to in full, Tottenham Hotspur or Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. We’re proud of our full name so we never refer to the Club as Tottenham, Tottenham Hotspur FC or THFC. Of course, we’re also called SPURS but we only refer to ourselves as this when we’re talking to our fans, the foundation of this Club.
 
However, in case the juxtaposition is not quite clear enough, I need only not brush up on my placard-making skills because ‘Hotspur’ is a unique and therefore marketable name i.e. the club’s tradition sits well with its commercial plans (although it is still reassuring to know that the fans are, quite rightly, the foundation of the club).
 
A fundamental question arising from the Hull City/Tigers episode was this - assuming it wishes to do so, how can English football manage the difficult balance between the views of its supporters and respect for its traditions on the one hand, with the fact that it is “big business” and the possibilities for generating more revenue at the apparent expense of those traditions on the other? 
 
Whilst the focus below is on Hull City’s name change application, this is a regular and live issue, evidenced by a number of examples such as Cardiff City’s change in playing colours, the “Sports Direct Arena”, “Game 39” and the prospect of ‘B’ teams.
 

Hull City’s name change application and The FA Rule A(3)(l)

Hull City’s application to change its name was made under, and fell to be determined in accordance with, FA Rule A(3)(l), which states:
 
A Club competing in any one of The Premier League, The Football League, The Football Conference, the Southern Football League, the Isthmian League and the Northern Premier League shall not be permitted to change its playing name (i.e. the name under which the Club competes in a Competition), as recorded on Form “A”, save with the prior written permission of Council.
 
Any application for a change of playing name must be received by The Association before 1st April in any calendar year in order for it to be considered by Council for adoption in the following playing season. Council will use its absolute discretion in deciding whether to approve a change in a Club’s playing name.
 
The first thing to note is that the rule only applies to a club’s “playing name” which, as the rule itself states, is the name under which a club competes in a “Competition”. “Competition” is a defined term under FA Rules and includes domestic competitions such as the Premier League and The FA Cup (for completeness the Europa League Regulations, which apply to Hull City for at least this season, defer to the domestic position4).
 
The scope of FA Rule A(3)(l) is therefore somewhat limited and it does not prevent a club branding itself other than with reference to its playing name; for example, Hull City as a legal entity is ‘Hull City Tigers Limited’ and club email addresses end ‘@hulltigers.com’. There are no provisions in FA Rules which specifically cover changes to club colours or stadium naming rights, which are perhaps the two other key aspects of a club’s identity. 
 
It is also to be noted that, in deciding whether to approve a change of name, The FA Council has an “absolute discretion”. Legally speaking, this means that it must come to its decision in good faith and not in an arbitrary, capricious or irrational manner,5 which is not a particularly high bar for decision-making.
 
Whilst a broad discretion is often desirable, as currently drafted FA Rule A(3)(l) gives no indication whatsoever as to whether any given proposed name may be acceptable or not (which would serve to inform how such discretion will be applied). Further, FA Rule A(3)(l) is not in fact the only provision of The FA Handbook which deals with a change of a club’s name. The FA’s ‘Regulations relating to Advertising on the Clothing of Players, Club Officials and Match Officials’ state, at Regulation C.4, “No Full Member Club or Associate Member Club may include the name of a sponsor in its Club title without the consent of The Football Association” (this is perhaps a surprising provision given the title of the regulations in which it appears).
 
In light of the fact Regulation C.4 clearly conceives that it would be possible (in certain, undefined circumstances) to include a sponsor’s name in a club’s title, one could conclude that a change of name to Hull Tigers (which at least relates to the club’s heritage) would be more acceptable than a change of name to, say, Hull Coke Zero. Certainly, there is nothing to point to which says ‘Tigers’ would be unacceptable per se.
 
Notwithstanding, The FA was however no doubt able to meet the relevant decision-making standard through careful management of the process, including a consultation exercise with various stakeholders.6  Faced with the lack of guidance provided by FA Rule A(3)(l), that would seem to have been an entirely fair and reasonable approach for The FA’s Executive to adopt (certainly, it does not seem that it was subject to legal challenge).

 

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