It's a familiar story: this summer, two more professional athletic teams sold stadium-naming rights to publicity-hungry corporations. For a cool $80 million, the Nashville Predators--an expansion team in the National Hockey League--agreed to name their new arena the Gaylord Entertainment Center, while the National Football League's Tennessee Titans were paid $30 million to dub their home stadium the Adelphia Coliseum. A majority of the nation's professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey teams now play in arenas named for corporations, and the percentage is likely to grow. There's already talk that the naming rights for the venerable Yankee Stadium and the proposed new Fenway Park will soon be up for grabs. And the Boston Celtics just announced (for an amount, sources told The Boston Globe, between $8 and $12 million) their practice facility will be called the Sports Authority Training Center at Healthpoint.
Sports purists cringe when the fabled ballparks of yesterday are replaced with new, commercially named arenas, and the appearance of venues like the Florida Panthers' National Car Rental Center (or like the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl or the Weed Eater Independence Bowl in college football) brings the tackiness to new heights. What's more, the sale of naming rights blurs the line between advertising and entertainment, making intrusive marketing the norm in yet another corner of daily life.
But what if the main alternative to a sale of naming rights is public financing? That's the dilemma facing many public officials today. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has opposed selling the naming rights to the Broncos' new arena--even if keeping the Mile High name would cost taxpayers $50 million in corporate funding. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, House Speaker Thomas Finneran has publicly stated that saving taxpayers' money is more important than preserving the Fenway name.
The triumph of commercialism in stadium names is just one more sign of commercialism's clout in sports as a whole. After all, running a successful franchise often depends on having high-priced corporate skyboxes and 'premium seating'--amenities that require large team revenues and the construction of new stadiums. Skyrocketing player salaries only add to the problem. Without a change in the way professional sports teams are operated, the trend is likely to continue.
And now one enterprising sports league has taken the process a step further. If all goes according to schedule, the Collegiate Professional Basketball League (CPBL) will begin to play in eight cities in November 2000. The competitors will be college-aged players; the league will pay them a living wage and use various financial incentives to encourage them to earn college degrees; all players will study at least part time. The result, promises CPBL President Paul McMann, will be a league far less exploitative of its players than the NCAA and far more family friendly and affordable than the NBA.
What truly drives the CPBL, however, is corporate sponsorship. For $500,000 a corporation can both sponsor a team and buy that team's naming rights. Even the league's name is for sale. So far, three corporations have signed on, establishing Boston's Team Lycos, Detroit's Team Broadcast.com, and Chicago's Team Acunet.net. 'I consider us in the advertising business,' McMann told a CNN interviewer last March, 'and we have built our advertising business around basketball.' McMann even referred to his teams as 'essentially billboards,' which suggests that--as admirable as some of his goals may be--athletics as a whole could suffer from a renewed bout of commercialism if the CPBL is a success.
Paul McMann could still learn a lot about selling out to corporations from one Australian Rules Football Club, however. Faced with $7 million in debt and a morale-sapping series of losses, the Geelong Cats were in desperate need of cash--and they had already sold their home stadium's naming rights. In June, however, team captain Garry Hocking came up with a novel solution. In return for over 100,000 Australian dollars and a donation to a local animal shelter, Hocking agreed to legally change his name to 'Whiskas' for a week. The cat food company was delighted by the exposure, and Whiskas's teammates were pleased by the infusion of money. The only victims were the fans and the integrity of the game.