Sports Nut

Are You Ready for the Microsoft Mariners?

Professional sports franchises have exhausted every conceivable revenue source. They’ve wrapped their stadiums in billboards, auctioned off TV and radio broadcast rights, and duped states and cities into paying for arenas whose naming rights they eventually sell. The Nike Swoosh, the Adidas paw print, and even the Reebok thingamajig have bought space on players’ uniforms.

As entrepreneurial owners like Daniel Snyder, Jerry Jones, and Peter Angelos accelerate their pursuit of cash, it’s only a matter of time before an owner takes the plunge and sells his team’s name. Are you ready for the Coca-Cola Braves? The MetLife Mets? The Microsoft Mariners?

Corporate naming of sports teams is not entirely new. Many Japanese baseball teams, including the Seibu Lions (real-estate firm), the Kintetsu Buffaloes (railway line), and the Orix Blue Wave (leasing company), carry their corporate owners’ names. In America, at the turn of the century, Indianapolis fielded a Negro league team called the ABCs, an acronym for the American Brewing Co. More recently, a Detroit team in the now-defunct Continental Indoor Soccer League changed its name from Neon (when Chrysler was the sponsor) to Safari (when General Motors took over). The Web portal Lycos paid $400,000 to name the Boston club in the fledgling Collegiate Professional Basketball League, but the league folded before its scheduled launch this fall.

Owners such as William Wrigley and Auggie Busch happily affixed their family names, which doubled as corporate monikers, to the ballparks they owned. But an outside business interest didn’t actually buy the naming rights to a major-league stadium until 1973, when the Rich frozen food family bought naming rights to the new Buffalo Bills stadium from the county. Eight years later, the Carrier air conditioner company put up $2.75 million—about 10 percent of construction costs—for rights to name the new dome in Syracuse. But team owners didn’t start cashing in directly until 15 years ago when ARCO paid the Sacramento Kings for naming rights to the new basketball arena. Three years later came the Great Western Forum (Los Angeles), followed in another three years by the Delta Center (Salt Lake City). Now you have, among countless others, Bank One Ballpark (30 years, $66 million), Continental Airlines Arena (12 years, $29 million), Miller Stadium (20 years, $41.2 million), and FedEx Field (27 years, $200 million).

In a parallel naming orgy, the college bowl games sold their names to various corporations. In 1983, the Florida Citrus Commission paid the organizers of the Tangerine Bowl to rechristen the game the Florida Citrus Bowl. In 1986 came the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, SeaWorld Holiday Bowl, Mazda Gator Bowl, and USF&G Sugar Bowl.  The John Hancock Sun Bowl, which also debuted in 1986, dropped Sun from its name in 1989 to become the first pure corporate bowl. Now all the bowls have named sponsors: the Bowl, the Axa/Equitable Liberty Bowl, the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. The Rose Bowl now calls itself “The Rose Bowl, Presented by AT&T.” Minor bowl sponsorship goes for as little as $1 million, but the biggies cost $10 million or more.

Sean Brennan, managing editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, sees corporate team nicknames on the horizon and predicts that the first ones will come pretty cheap— somewhere between $12 million and $15 million per year. That’s not much more than the $7 million Federal Express pays to name the Washington Redskins’ home field. Brennan says those figures will explode if corporations warm to the idea.

Corporate sellout makes huge sense for penniless, small-market teams such as the Montreal Expos, which can’t even sell its TV rights. In lieu of revenue sharing, how else are comparatively small-town teams like the Expos, the Twins, and the Royals supposed to compete with the juggernaut Yankees and Braves? Of course, name sponsorship could backfire on corporations. Yankees fans might retaliate against the Nokia Cardinals by purchasing Ericsson phones. And fans might rebel against the further corporatization of sports. But given current trends, I doubt it.

Would the pro leagues allow it? No NFL rule prohibits it, but the commissioner maintains veto power over any name change, and an NFL spokesperson says the league wouldn’t allow it. The other major leagues declined to answer the question. But one can imagine the more litigious owners taking their leagues to court to fight for the right to change their names. When the NFL tried to keep Al Davis from moving the Raiders to Los Angeles, Davis sued and won. When the league barred Jerry Jones from signing Cowboys endorsement deals with Nike and Pepsi, he sued and the NFL dropped its complaint. With hundreds of millions up for grabs, the leagues, never strong on anti-corporate principle, are sure to acquiesce.

So, who’s on first? Kansas City could sell its name to Sprint, and it wouldn’t even sound that bad. A jingoistic Canadian brewery might want to buy a hockey team name. The Molson Canadiens has a nice ring to it. But I predict a team already embroiled in a naming controversy will arrive first on the market: the Washington Redskins. The name offends a lot of people, and Daniel Snyder’s appetite for money is insatiable. But what name? Tom Clancy might pay for the Washington Red Storm Rising. Wrigley could get back into the sports biz with the Wrigley Big Red. Perhaps Red Roof Inns would be interested in sponsoring the Red Roof Inn Red Roofs. If continuity matters, the Redskins could sell out to the shampoo company and play as the Washington Redkens. But if Snyder knows what’s good for him, he’ll merge football and cosmetics: the Avon Skin-So-Softs.