Changing the name of the game field

There are many things you might call the home field of the Ravens, this city's National Football League franchise: Immense comes to mind, or gray and purple. Just don't call it PSINet Stadium. That was last year, before Internet company PSINet filed for bankruptcy.

This year it's Ravens Stadium. But don't get that emblazoned on a shirt yet either. Sometime in the next year or so, Ravens Stadium expects to have a new name. So far, management is keeping its options open.

Welcome to sports in the 21st Century, where owners of arenas and stadiums are now following the Dow and the Nasdaq as closely as the sports page.

The recession has already forced a number to change their names. Gone are Enron Field in Houston, the TWA Dome in St. Louis and Adelphia Stadium in Tennessee. Boston's newly constructed CMGI Stadium became Gillette Stadium before the New England Patriots could play a single down.

All this moniker-swapping has altered the world of naming rights, says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, making both sellers and buyers more hesitant.

In the 1990s, when watching the Dow was something of a sport in itself, many companies – particularly new high-flyers like Enron or PSI Net – spent millions to have their names connected with sports venues.

In the business world, getting a stadium named after your dotcom was a status symbol, a sign that you had arrived. For companies that few people had heard of – PSI Net was never exactly General Motors – it created instant name recognition.

"A ton of companies were looking to get their name on any stadium. It was a seller's market," Swangard says. "Now there are maybe two dozen facilities looking for naming partners."

Not that the naming-rights business has completely dried up. There are still about 60 big-league stadiums and arenas that have some sort of corporate affiliation – from airlines to breweries to computer companies.

But even some of those names may be in jeopardy. How long will Continental Airlines Arena in New Jersey continue to exist, considering that company's troubles? What about Washington DC's MCI Center? MCI is part of WorldCom, now the largest company in US history to declare bankruptcy.

"The CMGIs and the PSINets, those were hot companies and those investments were a good thing," says Richard Sherwood, president of Front Row Marketing Services, a company that helps make naming deals. "The stadium name was not why the company failed."

But, Sherwood says, the name game has changed since the heyday of high-tech. "It's become a big decision now, whereas before it was an ego thing." Businesses now want more than their names in lights: They want to know what tie-ins are involved. They want special promotions for their company, and luxury boxes to show off to clients.

The naming craze probably began in Buffalo, N.Y. There, in 1973, Rich Foods secured the right to call the Buffalo Bills home Rich Stadium for 25 years – for the now-paltry sum of $1.5 million.

Today, companies spend more than that for a single season of naming rights. American Airlines pays an average of $6.5 million a year – and will until 2031 – for the right to call the home of basketball's Dallas Mavericks and hockey's Dallas Stars "American Airlines Center." The airline also spends $2.1 million annually to call the home of basketball's Miami Heat "American Airlines Arena."

With that kind of money in the offering, another name change isn't looking too bad to the Ravens. A woman answering the stadium's front office phone laughs off the notion of sticking with the current name. "As soon as they can find someone to buy it, they'll sell it," she says.

"That's what we've come to now," agrees Ravens fan Ben Garber, outside the stadium sporting a a purple T-shirt celebrating the team's 2001 Superbowl championship, "It's part of the game." Still, he wishes they'd keep the name Ravens Stadium. "That's what we call it anyway. Who ever called it PSI Net Stadium?"

Swangard says there is some talk in the industry of going back to the good old days when stadiums were named for fallen heroes (Chicago's Soldier Field), or for the team that played there (Yankee Stadium), or for city legends (Joe Louis Arena in Detroit). But, ultimately, he says, naming rights revenue has become too critical to keeping teams and stadiums afloat for them to seriously consider the move.

Sports fans, accustomed to worse betrayals, largely consider naming-rights to be a lesser evil. Baltimore fans lost their much-beloved Colts in 1983, when the owner moved the team to Indianapolis under cover of darkness.

"As long as someone doesn't come along and try to steal our team in the middle of the night," says fan Paul Tenney, looking up at the front of Ravens Stadium, "they can call it whatever they want."

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