What's in a name? Razzing and shame

Enron was synonymous with Houston, which is now struggling to erase every mark of the energy giant

"You're from Houston?"

That's how David Weed has been getting razzed by out-of-town friends ever since Enron collapsed. They say it's all in fun, but he knows there's a bit of seriousness to it.

"Enron reflects negatively on all of us," explains Mr. Weed, standing in a warm spring rain outside the former Enron Field, where workers are racing to dismantle all vestiges of the Enron name before Tuesday's opening game.

Many in this beleaguered city have been hoping for some diversion, a little good news from Houston for a change – and like all true baseball fans, Weed is putting his faith in a ball and bat.

But when he passes through the gates this season, he'll see something that is almost unheard of these days: a sports facility with no corporate sponsor.

The Astros spent millions of dollars and plenty of time in court fighting to get the name Enron Field removed from its downtown ballpark.

Symbol of oversized ambition

It's part of the city's attempt to disassociate itself from the bankrupt energy giant that was, in many ways, a symbol of Texas. It represented the kind of high-stakes risk-taking bravado characteristic of this entrepreneurial city, and a state full of oversized ambition.

In an ironic twist, local charities that once eagerly sought the support of Enron are now quietly dropping the company's name from signs.

Tourism officials who once relied on Enron's reputation to lure other companies to Houston are now airbrushing its logo from literature.

Still, no one has gone to greater lengths to distance itself from the failed company than the Houston Astros, who wanted out of its sponsorship agreement so badly it took the company to court. In the end, the Astros paid Enron $2.1 million to buy back the rights.

"It was certainly a sad day for Houston," says Pam Gardner, president of business operations at the Houston Astros. "And it was sad for us because it was a wonderful partnership."

But she says with all the allegations of wrongdoing in the past six months, it was clear that Enron wouldn't have the same standing in the community. "We look for partners that do business the way we do business: with honesty and integrity."

To that end, the Astros have begun the search for a new corporate sponsor whose name will grace the ballpark.

The team has received a lot of interested calls and it is talking with several local companies, including Conoco Inc., Compaq Computer Corp., and Landry's Restaurants.

Even "Mattress Mac," Jim McIngvale, the flamboyant old-school furniture entrepreneur and lavish philanthropist known for his crude TV commercials here, is also interested in the naming rights. One of the city's biggest boosters, he's had nothing good to say about the way Enron ran its business, likening top management to a "modern-day Jesse James." He's said he'd refuse to watch another game at the stadium unless Enron's name was removed – he called it a "slap in the face" to the city.

It's a sentiment heard all over this shamed city.

Thus, the Astros had no choice but to sever ties with the company – even though Enron was keeping current on its sponsorship payments, says Dean Bonham, a Denver-based naming-rights consultant.

"One of the main reasons companies invest in naming rights is because consumers create an image or association with the team that is positive," he says. "In this instance, that association had become very negative. The name stopped meaning Astros and started meaning bankruptcy and scandal."

To make sure the team's name did not become weighed down by that negativity, it was critical for the Astros to disassociate themselves from Enron as quickly as possible – even if it meant losing millions, says Mr. Bonham.

Enron employees not forgotten

In addition, the team needed to prove that it cared about the 4,500 families that were affected.

That proof will come at tomorrow's exhibition game against the Boston Red Sox when the Astros will donate $150,000 to a fund established to help ex-Enron employees and their families.

Team officials continue to search for a new corporate sponsor, but won't be able to cut a deal until a US bankruptcy judge signs off on the dissolution agreement April 25.

The ballpark, built around the city's old train station, will be called Astros Field until a new sponsor is found, say officials.

But some baseball fans are fed up with corporate ties and the problems that can follow, and want to see the stadium remain independent.

"We kind of like the name the Ballpark at Union Station," says Bill Langston, watching his son throws imaginary pitches outside the park's south entrance. He's referring to the name given the stadium before the Astros and Enron signed a deal in 1999.

No matter the new name, says Weed as he looks up at what used to be known proudly as Enron Field, "I think it was a good idea to remove the name because of the negative connotation Enron has right now. The longer the name Enron is associated with the ballpark, the longer this fiasco will continue."

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