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April is the corporatest month. First we get the news that Taco Bell is buying the Liberty Bell and renaming it the Taco Liberty Bell -- just an April Fools' Day joke, folks, Taco Bell chuckled as "War of the Worlds-type" calls crisscrossed the country. (But what's the joke? Selling off national treasures would go down only too well with the corporate-bought "Joe Camel Congress," as an Atlanta journalist put it.)Then comes the even more surreal news that Rudy Giuliani wants to build a $1 billion-plus, 70,000-seat, retractable-dome Yankee stadium in Manhattan that will bury the West Side in traffic -- and decades of debt. At least Taco Bell actually donated $50,000 to the Independence National Historic Park (an extraordinarily cheap sum to buy them an indelible association with the Liberty Bell). George Steinbrenner, on the other hand, will never part with enough stadium revenue to help the citizens of New York pay for his Condome-on-the-Hudson.Then, what with all the domesday talk in the air, an AP story last week seemed perfectly credible. It stated that AT&T was proposing "to put up about $600 million for a new domed stadium for the next Cleveland Browns team" in exchange for "stadium naming rights, the telephone contracts for all the buildings and tax abatements." AT&T denies it, but Browns watchers insist that discussions of an AT&T Fone Dome-complete with convention center and hotel -- are real, if preliminary.Without reiterating all the arguments against cities mortgaging their futures to build ego-boosting stadiums, let's just say that the stadium-and-arena-building mania that's sweeping the country doesn't help cities. It does, however, really help the dozens of corporations going the Taco Bell route by tagging their names to the monuments of sport.Whether the Yankees will eventually play in NYNEX Field or the Disney Dome (under a fresh appellation like the Goofies?), no one knows. But don't think that such names are just silly parlor games. They already exist. (NYNEX even has the "naming rights" to the arena in Manchester, England, while Disney, of course, created and owns the Mighty Ducks hockey team of Anaheim.) Any new or even renovated Yankee stadium is almost certain to get a corporate name that has absolutely nothing to do with the Yankees, baseball, or sports -- it's just too expensive to refuse the $1 million to $5 million a year that a corporate moniker could bring in.Corporate names for stadiums and arenas are now as inevitable a part of sports as balls and pucks. In fact, rather than group sports facilities by the kind of sport they host --baseball, football, basketball, or hockey -- these days it makes more sense to group them according to the kind of company that slaps its logo onto them: airline, technology, bank, or beverage.The most turgid tongue-tripper in these parts is, hands down, the Continental Airlines Arena (aka: the Brendan Byrne Arena). But there is also the United Center for the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawks, the Trans World Dome for the new St. Louis Rams, the Delta Center for the Utah Jazz, and America West Arena for the Phoenix Suns, while our northern neighbors, stuck with the word "Air" in their airlines, fly with the Canadian Airlines Saddledome for the Calgary Flames and the Air Canada Centre, where the Toronto Raptors will play.The airline industry, though, will lose in a trade to the techie types as the Washington Bullets and Capitals dump the USAir Arena for the new MCI Center. That switch will not cause many tears to flow, but other evocative place names now digitally redubbed just might. Thomson Consumer Electronics, parent of RCA, paid the city of Indianapolis $23 million over 20 years to strip the words "Hoosier Dome" from the stadium and baptize it the RCA Dome. The Palladium, home of the Ottawa Senators, became the Corel Centre, named after a software company. San Francisco is particularly plagued with life-sucking sounds: the Giants plan to move to Pacific Bell Park; meanwhile, their current home, Candlestick Park, has been renamed 3Com Park.Banking nomenclature always tugs at the heart: Bank One Ballpark is set to welcome an expansion team, the Arizona Diamondbacks, in the 1998 season. The Fleet Center, sponsored by Fleet Bank, is now home to the Boston Celtics and Bruins; the CoreStates Spectrum to the Flyers in Philadelphia; Great Western Forum to the L.A. Lakers and Kings; Marine Midland Center to the Buffalo Sabres; and Key Arena, named after Key Bank, to the Seattle SuperSonics.Sports are really much more of a beverage experience, and so we have the fabled Montreal Forum replaced by the larger Molson Centre. Milwaukee will have Miller Field, but Colorado is the drinkiest place on earth, with the Colorado Rockies playing in Coors Field, and the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche soon playing in -- it's hard to swallow this one -- the Pepsi Center.Let's be Pepsi Clear here: These new corporate names have absolutely nothing to do with owning a team or even a building; virtually none of the companies above have even invested in a team or building.The naming rights usually come out of a company's ad budget, and it's simply a matter of the highest bidder buying the right to glue a logo onto a circular edifice as if it were a very large can of dog food. The trend of stadium as ad medium -- an evolution of brand names hitching rides onto sports events like the Tostito Fiesta Bowl and of the advertising that's in every TV shot of every sports play -- is only embryonic now, says Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, Ltd., which helped broker the deal in which TWA will pay close to $70 million over 30 years for the right to name the new Rams home the Trans World Dome.But it's a trend that will only increase as companies try and create more distinct images for themselves. With all the clutter out there of TV, billboards, and radio, companies are striving to find unique sponsorship opportunities, and stadiums and arenas are among the most unique they can find.The exposure is tremendous -- the company gets literally tens of millions of mentions per year. For a company like 3Com or Corel that is not well known, this gets them the exposure they couldn't have purchased for the same dollar amount through advertising. But even for larger companies like Pacific Bell it's extremely cost effective.Of course, a handful of stadium names are steeped in traditions older than the calculation of mentions. Wrigley Field and Busch Stadium are not just names of companies but of the families who owned the teams. Then, as municipalities began to exert control over stadium deals, we started to see stadium names like Veterans, Robert F. Kennedy, and Shea (William Shea was a lawyer who was instrumental in creating the Mets).But these days, as cities vie for teams to deliver that instant feel-good identity and as team owners hold municipalities hostage to taxpayer-funded buildings, tax abatements, and concession rights, cities have become desperate for any extra millions they can muster.The revenue in names is still a drop in the bucket compared to the average $250 million or so a stadium costs. "The right to own a stadium name for 10 to 20 years tends to go for between $25 million to $55 million," says Roger Noll, Stanford economics professor and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, which is planning a conference on the economics of stadiums this fall. He says a new name for Yankee Stadium would go for considerably more. "If you get as much as $100 million for 20 years, that would be a record, but it would still amount to only $5 million for each year. And that's not enough to even begin to offset the building costs of $1 billion or more.None of this helps the cities, except possibly psychologically. Normally, about 90 percent of these things end up being paid for by taxpayers.Every city has its stadium crisis. Failing a drop in the popularity of sports or the introduction of significantly more teams, it's going to continue indefinitely. You build them a new stadium now and they'll be back in 10 or 15 years asking for more.The corporate naming frenzy is supposed to restore a few of the bucks that the sports czars have gouged from us, but that's small consolation for how the naming game so nakedly turns emotions into money. "These new corporate names deeply intrude on the emotional attachments people have for the old stadiums, teams, and buildings," says a sports editor friend. "Some of these places are infused with the most passionate emotions. Men don't cry generally, but they certainly might when their team wins. To pollute these associations with something like the Continental Airlines Arena or the Molson Centre is gross."But perhaps another sentiment, a subset of the sports emotion, also drives some of this stadium-building compulsion in the first place. It's that can-do, fuck-you, I'm-the-man emotion that bursts out of sports regularly and that is pushed by capitalism's constant search for the moment triumphant. A seven-year-old can fly a plane in a storm! Ya gotta believe! During games at the Steinbrenner Dome, traffic will part like the Red Sea to let the fans pass through! We can do it! Yesss!And I gotta believe corporate incursions into sports can no more be beaten back than they are from the environment, government, or rock 'n' roll. The stadium-naming phenomenon comes out of the same needs for money that drive states to start up lotteries, or New York City to sell off pieces of its parks, or other towns to sell ad space on police cars and school buses, not to mention in schools, as Channel One blankets the country with the message that private enterprise makes the world go 'round. It's related also to corporate takeovers -- of companies as well as nations -- in which every entity is best understood as sellable, breakup-able, replaceable: In a world of permanent impermanence, we're all free agents, whether we're an individual, a team, or a corporation; laid-off or paid-off, we're all ready to reinvent ourselves for the highest bidder.Who knows? Maybe years from now we'll get sentimental about 3Com Park and the Pepsi Center, the way Gen X does now about '70s absurdities. But I doubt it. In a generation or two, our sense of dislocation will become total, and we'll forget what we've lost as we wander for hours among like-minded throngs, thirsty and coughing from car exhaust, all trying to get into the Philip Morris Dome in Nike York City.


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