Tottenham Hotspur has got itself into an entirely avoidable situation in which its stated desire to “protect the brand” is causing a lot of damage to the brand. Or, as we might have said before the age of football’s commercial wonderland, dragging the club’s name through the mud.
In a story that has inevitably been plastered all over the media as evidence of a rich Premier League football club bullying a tiny amateur team, Spurs have used the threat of legal action to force Hampshire-based Fleet Spurs to drop its cockerel logo. The situation, although not quite simple as some have presented it, is the kind of PR debacle the club seems to have specialised in over the years – although it would be unfair to see high-handedness and arrogance as the preserve of just one club in the top flight.
THFC has handled this badly, but Fleet Spurs have also been naive. Look at the logos shown in that BBC story (I won’t carry them on this site lest the eagle-eyed lawyers in THFC’s commercial department deem illustrating a point to be some kind of infringement that will cost the club the equivalent of a midfielder’s left foot) and it’s clear the issue is not with a cockerel in general, but the way the cockerel is represented. The THFC badge is a highly-stylised logo, and the one now on the Fleet Spurs badge is exactly the same. Fleet say that particular badge was a recent introduction, based on a design submitted in a competition by a fan.
Now, Fleet Spurs have used a cockerel as a club symbol since the club was formed in 1948. A look on the Hampshire club’s website is instructive, especially as it provides a reminder of how clubs developed before a time when commerce was everything. Here, it says “The first club badge was a cockerel on a ball, in homage to Tottenham Hotspur, the rising stars of English football at the time.” Interesting to note that Arthur Rowe’s Spurs team of the time was happy to let its groundbreaking football project its image, and felt safe enough in what it was doing not to send the lawyers down to Fleet. Interesting too to note that, many years before, Tottenham Hotspur, which itself changed its name from Hotspur FC to avoid confusion with London Hotspur, adopted its famous lilywhite shirts and blue shorts in homage to Preston North End, the stars of English football at the time.
These were, of course, very different times. Football clubs were primarily sporting institutions rather than businesses, and imitation was seen as flattery rather than a commercial threat. But it is interesting nonetheless to reflect on whether these changes are for the better.
We do, however, live in the world that exists, rather than the one we would like to live in. And so it has to be said that Fleet Spurs were, at best, naive in thinking they could use a stylised, registered logo without permission. In a busy morning of exchanges on Twitter (I really do need to get a life) I’ve seen some air the suspicion that Fleet are working this to get some money, and are milking their victim status. From what I’ve seen, I don’t believe that is true at all, because I can’t see that what Fleet could gain against a powerful adversary would make the effort worthwhile. And the people running Fleet would have to be certifiably stupid to believe they could win a legal battle against THFC, especially when you put those two cockerels side by side. So I think saying Fleet were naive is a fair assessment.
Fleet’s explanation of the situation is on its website. On Sunday morning THFC’s website, perhaps understandably, carried no mention of the story in its news or media watch sections, so for the club’s side we have to rely on the statements giving to national media. That so many were so quick to jump to the conclusion that Fleet have some Machiavellian plan is, in my opinion, a sad indication of what modern football is making of us.
But I also think that saying THFC have been bloody stupid is also a fair assessment. A little thought, and perhaps some basic PR awareness, could have avoided all this. Of course, THFC has to protect its intellectual property – although if it seriously thinks a Hampshire amateur side with a home attendance of 17 is a threat there are deeper problems at the club than the lack of goals from open play. Some have argued that, whatever the size of the club, letting them get away with it would set a precedent. That seems unlikely to me, but I’m happy to be corrected if there are a plethora of clubs with cockerel logos and a strong Spurs-supporting connection out there waiting to see what the outcome of this test case is.
As THFC has shown in the deal with StubHub, it can give permission for something not normally allowed if it wants to. It could have offered Fleet affiliate status, and in so doing revived memories of the groundbreaking arrangement set up by the legendary Peter McWilliam with Kent side Northfleet United. It could have gently pointed out that the specific logo used infringed copyright and offered some guidance on change. It could have offered to play a fundraising game to pay for any changes Fleet Spurs needed to make. It could, in fact, have done any number of things to ensure this didn’t blow up as it has.
Instead, it has come across as bullying and arrogant. It has almost certainly ruined a relationship with a club that previously held THFC in high regard. It has presented section editors with a dream story about how power abuses those without it, one that has even more resonance in a time of increasing disaffection with the football business. And it has, ironically, damaged THFC’s image.
That dismays those of us who have supported Tottenham Hotspur for long before those currently looking after it arrived, and who want to continue supporting it long after they leave.