Private Names, Public Spaces

As a kid growing up in suburban Milwaukee, I was obsessed with baseball statistics. Every morning I would pore over the sports page, absorbing every minute fluctuation in my favorite players' batting averages. I set about memorizing annual stat books page-by-page. I even learned by rote the names of each team's ballpark: Comiskey, Fenway, Memorial Coliseum, Veterans Stadium. These names were old, proud and noble; fit to house my heroes in pinstriped jerseys.

But in the last 15 years, as owners have played cities and fans against one another to build ultra-modern new stadiums at public expense, the old names of my childhood have died with the old ballparks. Owners have left no seat unturned in their quest for new revenues to pay ever-escalating player salaries. They've put microbreweries in the concourses, hot tubs behind the right field fence, and installed a new seating hierarchy, from luxury boxes to club seats. And, of course, they've sold the names of the stadiums themselves.

Reliant Energy is paying $10 million per year to grace the façade of the new Houston Texans' football stadium. Phillips Electronics pays the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers $9.3 million annually; FedEx, $7.3 million to the Washington Redskins. Four other corporations -- American Airlines, Coca Cola, Invesco and Lincoln Financial Group -- pony up at least $6 million per year. With that kind of money being thrown around, no stadium, no matter how sacred its history or name, is safe.

But now, suddenly, there's reason for hope. The 'Stick is back. 

On Aug. 5, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors decided against selling the naming rights to Candlestick Park, home of the NFL's 49ers. The final tally was 5-5; the 11th supervisor, who has supported an even more restrictive policy regarding the sale of naming rights, was absent.

One of professional sports most venerable old stadiums, Candlestick's name was actually sold in 1996 to 3Com, but the deal expired Jan. 1, 2002. Candlestick is now the first park to sell its naming rights, only to take its old name back after a corporate "divorce."

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Supervisor Tony Hall said, "We do not need to prostitute ourselves at the feet of the NFL franchises." Candlestick Park, he added, "is our modern day Colosseum ... It's part of our background, part of our culture."

The business of name buying in professional sports started innocently enough in 1972, when Buffalo's Rich Foods paid the modest sum of $1.5 million to attach its name to the home of the NFL's Buffalo Bills. By 1988, only two other stadiums bore corporate names. Since then, however, companies large and small, famous and obscure, have snapped up 62 stadium names. Fans no longer flock to the Boston Garden, Riverfront or Tiger Stadium -- they've been replaced by the FleetCenter, Cinergy Field and Comerica Park.

Except when the names are especially awful (poor Providence ended up with the Dunkin' Donuts Center), most of us don't blink an eye when we hear about the latest naming rights deal. We tend to accept them as an unseemly yet necessary part of the professional sports economic equation.

If naming rights revenues are needed to sign that free agent who will carry our beloved team into the playoffs, then we can stomach these affronts to our aesthetic sensibilities. Even Pittsburgh Steelers fans, basking in the bliss of their team's gaudy 14-2 record last fall, didn't object to the huge plastic ketchup bottle H.J. Heinz insisted on erecting next to the new stadium as part of its naming rights deal.

But in the last few years, the name game has rapidly spread outside the athletic sphere and into the public sector. In cities across the country, the nomenclature of our civic landscape -- from our parks to our high school scoreboards -- is up for sale. The trade magazine IEG Sponsorship Report estimated that in 1999 alone, 50 cities inked deals totaling $100 million with corporations willing to sponsor public assets.

To state and local politicians trapped between the public's impossible demand for high-quality services and lower taxes, nothing is sacred. The Chronicle reported that San Francisco Supervisor Mark Leno, who voted in favor of selling the 'Stick's name, said cities like his are in a bind. It doesn't make sense to turn down the revenue when "[t]he feds cut back, the state cuts back, but we're here dealing with all the misery in the streets, all the demands on our social services."

The city is also under contract to maintain the 42-year-old stadium, and with a $30 million-backlog of needed repairs, a naming rights deal certainly would have helped. The city will get some money, however, from advertising featured inside Candlestick.

Many politicians across the country agree with Leno. Throughout the country, hospitals, parks, libraries, performing arts centers, theaters, convention centers, fairgrounds, high school sports facilities and shopping malls are available for the right amount.

Last year, Massachusetts officials reviewed proposals to rename four of Boston's subway system's busiest stations (they had already renamed their electronic toll system "Bank Boston Fast Lane" -- now known as "Fleet Fast Lane"). Business groups in Washington, D.C., urged local governments to sell naming rights to area roads to pay for transportation improvements, prompting a Washington Post columnist to suggest that Cuisinart buy the rights to the infamous "Mixing Bowl" intersection.

In San Diego, a councilman supported shopping the naming rights to an entire city district -- the 26-block East Village district that is home to the city's major sports stadiums (which already have their own naming rights deals). San Diego leaders are also game for slapping a corporate logo on a firefighting helicopter -- if they can find a company willing to foot the bill for the chopper and a pilot. The city has even created a new department to explore potential sponsorship deals.

But Lake Forest, a bedroom community in southern Orange County, has taken naming rights deals to new heights. In exchange for $100,000, the city not only named a new city skatepark after the Etnies shoe and clothing company, it also gave the firm exclusive use of the public land at certain times to shoot commercials and hold events. And to help defray the city's share of the park's $1 million price tag, Etnies T-shirts are being hawked on the city's Web site and at the Lake Forest City Hall.

"It's commercialism gone gaga," Michael A. Kamins, a marketing professor at University of Southern California, told the L.A. Times.

Even before this latest corporate assault, most people's lives were already saturated by advertising. The average American, according to the July 9, 2001 issue of Time magazine, sees 3,000 ads a day. No longer limited to TV, radio, and print and online media, ads are imprinted into beaches, stuck on taxi hubcaps, and beamed from lamps onto sidewalks at night.

And ad-free space is shrinking. Over the past few decades, the courts have systematically struck down laws intended to protect public space. Last year, the Supreme Court overturned a state measure prohibiting tobacco billboard ads near schools. Advertising, like campaign contributions, is no longer considered to be much different from the words we speak, and it's increasingly garnering the same legal protection.

The public commons is the last largely logo-free frontier. Advertisers can't go there -- unless officials give them permission. Once they do, we risk sliding down a slope that's very difficult to reverse. The temptation will only grow as public coffers are stressed and as advertisers inevitably grow more aggressive as their traditional targets -- our virtual and built environments -- are clogged.

As the Enrons of the world collapse like giant card houses, perhaps the Enron Fields of the world will follow suit (Enron was forced to relinquish the naming rights to the Houston Astros' ballpark, but they were promptly resold to Coca Cola as Minute Maid Park). And with CEOs no longer being worshiped as folk heroes out of Horatio Alger novels, perhaps city leaders will think again about selling to the highest bidder.

There has already been some backlash against corporate names. When a new football stadium opened in Denver in 2001, fans unsuccessfully sued to keep the fabled Mile High Stadium name alive. A local agency sold the naming rights for 20 years to Invesco, a financial services company. The price tag: $120 million.

Broncos management tried to have it both ways by naming the new stadium "Invesco Field at Mile High," but fans weren't buying it. Neither was the Denver Post, whose editors declared that in their pages it would always be Mile High Stadium. (The newspaper doesn't mind mentioning Coors Field or the Pepsi Center, however, when referring to the baseball stadium where the Colorado Rockies play or to the arena that houses the NBA's Denver Nuggets and the NHL's Colorado Avalanche.)

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors seems poised to take the most radical step yet. Not content with the preservation of Candlestick, the Board is also considering urging the city Recreation and Park Commission to adopt a policy prohibiting the sale of naming rights belonging to any publicly owned monument, building or park. 

According to the Chronicle, Supervisor Matt Gonzalez, who introduced the proposal, said, "It is not the proper role of San Francisco, or any other city, to act as an agent of public relations firms, prop up tarnished corporate identities, or otherwise become an advertising venue for corporations. I believe some things should not be for sale."

Daniel Kraker is a reporter for Arizona Public Radio and a freelance journalist. He lives on the Hopi Indian Reservation in northeast Arizona.


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