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For big game, a new name

To boost brand, Sun Life buys naming rights to Super Bowl host stadium in Fla.

Welcome to Sun Life Stadium. The 22-year-old arena where the Miami Dolphins have played has undergone several name changes in recent years. Welcome to Sun Life Stadium. The 22-year-old arena where the Miami Dolphins have played has undergone several name changes in recent years. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff/File 2009)
By Todd Wallack
Globe Staff / January 20, 2010

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Sun Life Financial Inc. has bought the ultimate Super Bowl ad: Its name will appear on the South Florida stadium where the most-watched sporting event in the United States will be played in three weeks.

The US arm of the Canadian insurance and financial services giant, which is based in Wellesley, has agreed to spend more than $4 million a year for the naming rights to the stadium where the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins play. The arena will be renamed Sun Life Stadium in time for the NFL’s Pro Bowl game that will also be played there, on Jan. 31. The Super Bowl is a week later, Feb. 7. Stadium officials plan to install both permanent and temporary signs before the events begin.

The 22-year-old stadium has had numerous monikers. It currently is Dolphin Stadium, and last year was called Land Shark Stadium, to promote the beer marketed by musician Jimmy Buffett. Previously it was Pro Player Stadium and Joe Robbie Stadium. It seats 75,540 and is in Miami Gardens, Fla., about 16 miles northwest of downtown Miami.

Sun Life and the Dolphins declined to comment, but Sun Life registered the sunlifestadium.com domain name last month. Multiple sources said a formal announcement is scheduled to be made at the stadium today. A person briefed on the pact said Sun Life agreed to pay $4 million a year for the naming rights, not counting additional commitments to community organizations. The agreement is slated to run for five years, but includes an option to extend it for another five years.

The insurance company has nearly 3,000 employees in Massachusetts, including its MFS investment unit. It recently undertook a major campaign to boost its name recognition in the United States. In November, the firm said it launched its first integrated brand and marketing campaign aimed at Americans with a series of television, print, and online advertisements.

The TV ads, which began Nov. 1., follow two Sun Life employees who are determined to make the brand a household name. They start by asking KC and the Sunshine Band to change its name to KC and the Sun Life Band, and later try to persuade Florida tourism officials to rename the Sunshine State the Sun Life State. KC and the Sunshine Band is slated to perform at the event announcing the deal today.

Two months ago, Sun Life president Jon Boscia said in a statement that Sun Life has been an institution for 144 years with 20 million customers worldwide “yet US consumers are not familiar with our brand.’’

Sun Life is among more than a dozen companies to lend their identities to stadiums - roughly half of the 32 NFL teams have naming-rights deals in place. But Jim Biegalski, a sports marketing specialist, said most sports naming deals last between 10 and 30 years, so the Sun Life deal is unusually short.

But sports teams are having a harder time lining up sponsors because of the sluggish economy, Biegalski said. In addition, companies are becoming in creasingly hesitant to ink such long-term branding deals, forcing teams to be more creative in signing sponsorships. He said the Dolphins probably included other assets, such as prominent ads inside the park, as part of the deal.

“Properties are having to work harder than they had to to put together value propositions,’’ said Biegalski, senior vice president for consulting at the Marketing Arm, a sports and entertainment marketing company based in Dallas. “Marketers are not looking at assets from a long-term perspective.’’

He said it’s “questionable’’ whether the deal will be worthwhile for Sun Life. He noted that the stadium is not a new park and has gone through numerous name changes, reducing the value of the naming rights. But he said that “if [South Florida] is a key market for them or they are looking to make a splash, this might be a bull’s-eye.’’

Florida would seem to be an attractive market for an insurance firm, with its large older population, as well as being a major tourist destination, giving the company the opportunity to promote its products to visitors from around the world.

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.