What's in a stadium name? A lot

By Howard Ulman
Associated Press / February 7, 2005

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When a regional phone company in Arkansas paid to slap its name on Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the price seemed steep. Was it really worth $6.2 million for some signs on a building in a small city that got its first major league sports team just two years earlier? Naming rights were a growing business when the 10-year deal was struck in 1997, but the firm's decision-makers weren't sure if it would be a boon or a boondoggle.

They are now.

Welcome to Alltel Stadium, home of Super Bowl XXXIX.

"It's a very proud moment," said Frank O'Mara, Alltel's executive vice president for sales and marketing. "It makes you feel big. It makes you feel you're a legitimate player, as we've always seen ourselves. But now the rest of the country sees it."

He was not sure how the attention on last night's game between the Patriots and Eagles would translate into profits for a cell phone company that focuses on rural communities. "There's no science around this," he said, but he's convinced a lot more people will know his firm.

"When we did that deal eight or nine years ago, I assure you, I didn't think it was cheap. But we would gladly accept that same deal now."

Still, deals to name stadiums can be dicey propositions.

Companies fail or get bought out. The Houston Astros' home was renamed Minute Maid Park from Enron Field after Enron ran into legal problems.

Winning teams become losers and vice versa. American Airlines' name on Miami's arena is more valuable now that Shaquille O'Neal is with the Heat.

Some companies are referred to by nicknames that bring little publicity; many people refer to Bank One Ballpark, the Diamondbacks' home as The BOB.

"Clubs are still very cautious," said E.J. Narcise, a principal with Team Services LLC, a Maryland company that negotiates naming rights deals. "You're not going to see `Chico's Bail Bonds' on the side of a stadium anytime soon."

That was the fictional sponsor of the Bad News Bears in the movie. In reality, selling the name of any sports building may offend purists.

"We could see a corporate name on a new Yankee Stadium," Narcise said. "I think our fans are more educated about the economics of our game than they've ever been. Corporate naming now is all part of it."

Don't expect that to happen at one of sports' most revered edifices, Fenway Park. Fans probably would still call it that even if its official name had a commercial tie-in, but the Red Sox have found creative ways to raise revenue since new ownership in 2002.

"The name Fenway Park is so institutionalized I don't think it would attract a lot of interest unless we had a for sale sign and were shopping the name," said Mike Dee, executive vice president of business affairs for the World Series champions.

But he's surprised that non-sports facilities haven't tried to raise money through naming rights deals.

"If people are willing to pay $2 million a year for a stadium, what do you think they could get for O'Hare Airport?" he said.

Last year's Super Bowl was played at Reliant Stadium in Houston, named for a Texas energy company. The one before was at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, named for a wireless technology firm. But a name on a stadium is just a start for companies.

"It's how they want to take it to the next level," said Eric Smallwood, vice president of Front Row Marketing Services, a Pennsylvania firm that analyzes benefits companies derive from naming rights. "Is Alltel flying clients into the Super Bowl? Did the company get Super Bowl tickets?"

The two teams in the game also play in stadiums with corporate names.

The Eagles played their first game at Lincoln Financial Field Aug. 22, 2003, an exhibition game with the Patriots. The previous summer, the Patriots' first game at Gillette Stadium was also an exhibition, against the Eagles. New England won both.

Procter & Gamble announced on Jan. 28 a deal to buy the Boston-based Gillette Co. and says it has no plans to change the name of the stadium; customers know Gillette makes razors but can't as easily identify P&G's products.

"Gillette has a long-term deal for the name," said P&G spokesman Doug Shelton. "Quite frankly, we couldn't be happier to be associated with the stadium and the world champions. We'll certainly be rooting for the Patriots."

The Patriots' new stadium started out with a different name, CMGI Field, but even before its first game, that company nose-dived and the deal was scrapped.

The NFL's expansion Jaguars moved into a renovated Gator Bowl in 1995.

It was called Jacksonville Municipal Stadium for two years. The Alltel sign went up in 1997 and the company wants to renew its deal after 2006, especially with the attention it got from millions of television viewers last night.

"You can read `Alltel Stadium' from either side of the stadium from a half a mile away," O'Mara said. "It's been an exceptionally good deal for us."

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