Steaua arrest: how a football club was stopped and stripped of its entire identity

The team formerly known as Steaua Bucharest. EPA/Robert Ghement

After a ruling by Romania’s highest court, Steaua Bucharest, the country’s most popular and well-known football team, was stripped of their name, colours and emblem. Founded in 1947 as an army side, it lost a battle over its trademark with the Romanian defence ministry.

The club has been privately owned since 1989 and allowed to continue with its traditional name and branding with the army’s permission. But when controversial local businessman, Gigi Becali (who is currently in prison for abuse of power during his time as a politician), bought the club in 2004 the army took issue with the continuing association. This led to a string of lawsuits, culminating in the recent ruling against Steaua.

And so, stripped of identifiers, the team’s players were labelled as “hosts” or “the champions of Romania” in recent games. They have been forced to replace their usual blue and red shirts with yellow ones and tape over their logos.

This loss of identity may well be costly to the club. The importance of a team’s name, colours and emblem to its identity are huge, especially given the current commercial nature of the game. While the hackles of some fans may stand up at the mere suggestion that their club should be viewed as a brand, I would argue that that is exactly what it is, albeit a distinctive type of brand with some unique challenges.

Clubs, their players, managers, stadiums, mascots and rich histories all form part of a business’ branding. So from a business point of view, a challenge to the ownership of its brand assets, such as the name, logo or colours is significant – ask Anheuser-Busch, the American brewing company that has fought a series of longstanding trademark battles with Czech brewers over the rights to the Budweiser beer brand. The same applies for Steaua Bucharest.

The passion that fans have for their clubs also makes changes to various aspects of the club’s identity all the more significant. Football fans are intensely involved with the clubs they support. Their support often runs through several generations and may be linked to values such as community, geography and strong emotional bonds. This emotional appeal and the level of engagement is why football has become such good value as a form of entertainment and, given the global numbers who watch games in stadiums and via broadcasts, as a business.

Precedent

To lose any one of these brand assets could, however, have a major impact on the extent to which fans identify with the club. And there is a great deal of precedent in recent years to support this. You only need to look at the strength of feeling of Cardiff City fans about the club’s re-brand from the Bluebirds with a traditional blue kit, to the red dragons – a move apparently intended to make the club appeal more strongly to Asian fans who consider red to be a lucky colour.

Similarly, fans of another English football club, Hull City were unhappy at the proposed re-brand of their team’s name to Hull Tigers. The change was eventually blocked by the Football Association in recognition of fan feeling and this has led to suggestions that any future football club re-brands might need their formal approval.

Supporters make their feelings known. Nigel French/PA Wire

Even changes to club logos can be strongly contested by fans given their high levels of emotional attachment to these cultural artifacts of their club and football heroes. Fan objections to changes to the crest at Everton suggested that omitting two of the traditional features of the crest – the laurel leaves and the club’s motto “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum” – was a betrayal of its history.

In similar protests about planned changes to its crest in 2005, one Coventry fan argued that: “these are not businesses like any other”. This fact is evidenced by the strength of feeling shown by Coventry fans when the club moved to play outside of the city during a dispute with the owners of their stadium. A Supporters Direct survey showed overwhelming support for fans to be “formally consulted on any changes relating to their football club (for example name, shirt colour, badge or location of the football club)”, with 77% agreeing.

So, for Steaua Bucharest to be stripped of three defining features of the brand, could certainly be damaging to the club. Without colours, name and crest, fans may feel less connected to the club and their sense of identification may diminish. The knock-on effects, a possible fall in the numbers attending matches or watching broadcasts, would reduce revenue – and sponsorship deals may also be affected should the club brand be changed.

Conversely, however, as these changes are not the choice of the club’s management, the changes could unite fans in support of their club, thus minimising the impact. But implementing a full re-brand will be costly, should a compromise not be reached between Steaua’s present owners and the defence ministry.