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Newcastle's Wonga Deal: When Did We Start Caring About Exploiting Fans?

Ryan Bailey@ryanjaybaileyFeatured ColumnistOctober 18, 2012

(Getty)
(Getty)

Newcastle fans recoiled in abject horror last year when St James Park, their home since 1892, was re-branded as the Sports Direct Arena.

This impious promotion of owner Mike Ashley's sportswear empire had no financial benefit for the club, it was merely used as a means of attracting a major naming rights sponsor. That day has now come, with short-term cash loan provider Wonga agreeing a four-year £24m sponsorship deal.

In addition to becoming shirt sponsors next year, Wonga have committed a public relations masterstroke by forgoing naming rights and officially reverting the stadium name back to St James Park. Champagne corks have literally been popping in celebration.

Yet reaction to the Wonga deal has been almost universally damning.

Dismissed by most as legal loan sharks, Wonga offer an eye-watering annual interest rate of 4,124% to those who need emergency cash. Their business model is seen to exploit their customers, many of whom could be supporters of Newcastle Utd.

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Local MP and season ticket holder Ian Lavery has said he will not set foot in the stadium while Wonga adorns the team's shirts. A recent survey revealed 41% of the fan base is unhappy with the deal. Newcastle's Muslim players have been told their new sponsor infringes on Sharia Law.

The merits of championing a payday loan company are clearly a sticking point, but this Wonga deal raises a very important question: when did Premier League football suddenly start caring about exploiting its fans?

Newcastle's recent sponsors have included Virgin Money and Northern Rock. The former encourages credit card borrowing, while the latter had to be propped up by public money after its model of offering exploitative 125% mortgages collapsed. Where were the complaints about money lending then?

Did many anti-alcoholism campaigners complain when Newcastle Brown Ale were the club's proud sponsors between 1995 and 2000?

How much outcry has there been about the copious amount of gambling advertising on show at every Premier League ground?

This isn't even Wonga's first foray into football sponsorship. This much controversy was not stirred up when they became Blackpool's inaugural Premier League sponsor in 2010, and little fanfare has been raised by the fact that the Seasiders extended their Wonga deal this week.

Complaining about football sponsors who promote fiscal irresponsibility seems utterly futile when the top teams in the UK play in a league sponsored by Barclays, a company who were fined this year for their part in the Libor rate-fixing scandal.

This is a league where ticket prices are so prohibitive that fans can pay up to £126 to watch a game. This is a league where teenagers earn enough money to drive ––and crash–– luxury sports cars.

Addressing the legitimacy of a sponsor like Wonga is a perfectly reasonable pursuit. But this issue is just a drop in the ocean of football's moral bankruptcy.

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