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10:51 am
Fri January 25, 2013

A Fan's Notes: The Name Of The Game

You won't see this yellow sign adorning Sporting KC's stadium anymore
You won't see this yellow sign adorning Sporting KC's stadium anymore

For every Arrowhead Stadium, there are a handful more named for banks, cell-phone companies, or airlines. In big-time sports, corporate naming-rights deals aren't just a trend, they are the rule - with millions of dollars at stake. 

But what's in a name? Sometimes more than was bargained for. Commentator Victor Wishna explains in A Fan's Notes

Just as Lance Armstrong was formalizing his fall from grace upon Oprah’s altar, a new monument to his shame took shape just a few miles from here. Drive past Sporting Kansas City’s sleek stadium—known until last week as Livestrong Sporting Park—and you’ll notice the distinctive yellow logo has been gouged out of the façade.  

Sporting knew what it was getting into when it partnered with Armstrong’s semi-eponymous, cancer-fighting foundation less than two years ago. Eager for good vibes and better PR, they were gambling that Livestrong would be strong enough to outlive its founder’s endangered reputation.

Ultimately, it was an issue of distrust—and not Armstrong’s disgrace—that reportedly caused the break-up. Sporting CEO Robb Heineman accused Livestrong of “utilizing aggressive tactics designed to force us into an unsatisfactory arrangement.” In other words, “We’re just not that into you.”

This is certainly not the first time a sports venue has taken a name in vain.

Think back to when the Houston Astros struck a hundred-million-dollar deal with a prominent local energy company. It must have seemed like a home run—until “Enron Field” lost its charm.

Closer to home, in 2004, the University of Missouri opened the Paige Sports Arena, named for the daughter of the Wal-Mart heirs who helped pay for it. It was awkward enough that young Paige spurned Mizzou for USC; when it was revealed she’d paid her freshman roommate $20,000 to do her homework, the deal finally fell through.

According to Proverbs, “A good name is more desirable than riches”—but then, even the prophets didn’t envision the profits offered by eight- and nine-figure stadium-naming deals.

Today the average fan can be forgiven for mistaking his team’s schedule for the Fortune 500: Ford Field… FedEx Forum… MetLife Stadium…Wells Fargo Center… AT&T Park. Currently, about three-fourths of all big-league baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and soccer venues bear the names of their for-profit patrons. Some change every few years, morphing into travesties like Sacramento’s Sleep Train Arena or Indiana’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Fans of the Charlotte Bobcats can watch their team at home on Time Warner Cable, or live at the Time Warner Cable Arena. And when the Mavericks and the Heat met in the 2011 NBA Finals, one sponsor couldn’t lose, as the widely watched series bounced between the American Airlines Center in Dallas and Miami’s American Airlines Arena.

As with so many unsavory things, the pay-to-name game can be traced back to St. Louis, where, in 1953, the National League let Augustus Busch, of Anheuser-Busch, stick his surname onto the Cardinals’ home ballpark.

When it comes to this kind of crass commercialization of sports, we in Kansas City have been mostly untouched. The Royals’ home field is a tasteful, thirty-thousand-seat tribute to late owner Ewing Kauffmann. Arrowhead, current slump aside, is one of the greatest stadiums with possibly the best name in the NFL. One glaring exception, the Sprint Center is, at least, nicely alliterative. Besides, it doesn’t have a team.

And when Sporting inked the Livestrong deal, it felt different, because it was. In the first relationship of its kind between a major sports franchise and a non-profit, the millions would be moving the other way, with the team donating a chunk of stadium revenue to the cancer fight. Sporting’s ownership has vowed to find other, similar ways to pursue that mission.

But first, a day later, they announced a new naming-rights deal, this time with Ivy Funds, a locally based asset-management firm. It’s no cure for cancer, but at least this corporate name will go on the jerseys, which should keep attention where it belongs: back on the field.

  

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, author, and sports fan.  He lives in Leawood.  You can hear “A Fan’s Notes” monthly on Up to Date.

 

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