One, two, many Enron Fields!

Purists complain about corporate names for new sports arenas, but it's better than subsidizing them with public money.

By John Solomon

Published August 28, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

The Denver Post made the stunning announcement earlier this month that it would refuse to call the city's new football stadium by its official name, Invesco Field. Instead, the newspaper will continue to use the old stadium's appellation, Mile High.

"Outside of official circles seldom do you hear 'Invesco Field' except in negative terms," explained Post editor Glenn Guzzo. "In this case, the community's terminology is familiar, positive and clear. We think our decision will be accepted widely."

It comes after the failure of Denver Mayor Wellington E. Webb's campaign to transfer the Mile High name to the new facility before the Broncos sold sponsorship rights to Invesco, a Denver-based mutual funds company, for $120 million.

The Post's own editorial page approvingly noted that the paper's move has "aided and abetted this public rebellion."

Striking Invesco Field from the stylebook has been further hailed by many columnists around the country as a brave stand against the overcommercialization of pro sports. It may turn out to be the climax of a growing national media backlash against corporate stadium names.

"The Post is on the side of the common man here. Fans are sick of corporations using stadiums for exposure. Dot-com this, airline that," opined Mitch Albom on ESPN's "The Sports Reporters."

Concurred Sports Illustrated's marquee columnist Rick Reilly in "Corpo-name Disease: Stop the Madness":

"Rise up, citizens of Canada and the U.S.! After all, do you really need nine North American sports venues named after airlines? ... A hex from the bottom of your hexer the community-crumbling megacompanies that try to steal your sense of who you are and where you are! Vow never to let a single corpo-name poison your lips!"

Yet, as popular as the Post's decision may be in the press, it is -- to mix a sports metaphor -- way off base. To paraphrase Albom, the paper may have put itself on the side of the common man's feelings, but not of his wallet. It's populism that isn't in the popular interest.

It has become an easy slam dunk to take a shot at Invesco Field, AmericanAirlines Arena, Network Associates Coliseum and all those other strange-sounding facilities. But Albom, Reilly and others are only giving the public half the story. In these screeds, it is often implied that there will be no financial consequences for the taxpayer. What happens if the "hex" works? Who will replace the shortfall?

The Post believes that since the public picked up three-fourths of the $400 million price tag through an increased sales tax, they should be able to choose the name. But it makes little sense to sock them with even more of the tab by giving up the Invesco money. In fact, selling the naming rights is the kind of private funding that cities need to embrace as an alternative to the traditional use of the local treasury as an ATM.

Mayor Webb has argued that the "Mile High" name not only helps local tourism but also reminds Broncos opponents that they are 5,280 feet above sea level. Yet, is a little intimidation worth tens of millions of tax dollars?

The same 'aura' argument will undoubtedly be raised when the idea of renaming a redeveloped Yankee Stadium is considered. Replacing the Yankee name will undoubtedly be viewed as a sacrilege by many. But New Yorkers cannot have it both ways. Yes, it would be ideal to retain the traditional designation, but the financial tradeoff is too high. Nostalgia has a cost.

The only way the Yankee name should be retained is if New Yorkers are given the choice and decide to forgo the cash to keep the cachet. Voters in the Green Bay, Wis., area decided in a referendum that the NFL's Packers should sell the naming rights rather than raise taxes to pay for improvements to hallowed Lambeau Field.

In an ideal world, sports arenas would be privately funded and would not have corporate names. But cities should not let the best be the enemy of the better. Franchises should actually be encouraged to maximize their commercial potential in order to minimize public funding. A model is the San Francisco Giants, which sold everything in Pac Bell Park to corporate sponsors -- right down to the Webvan cup holders on the back of each stadium seat -- but did not ask for government subsidies to build it.

Opposition to corporate naming of stadiums is usually portrayed as nobly keeping the barbarians of modern commercialism from getting even further inside the arena gates. Usually overlooked is that this is not a new phenomenon. Once, it was common for team owners to put their names on their stadiums -- i.e., Wrigley Field. At least then, the eponymous facilities were privately funded.

It's therefore not surprising that media coverage of another promising source of private financing came up short. There was little attention given to the NBA's decision last month to prohibit the new Memphis franchise from selling its team naming rights to FedEx. The company reportedly offered to pay $120 million if the team would call itself the Memphis Express and wear FedEx's purple and orange colors.

The sports press should have raised a red flag that the NBA foreclosed a private revenue source that could reduce public funding for pro sports in Memphis and around the nation. Heck, the NHL has already allowed Disney to name a hockey team after one of its movies. Why be so prudish about going all the way and getting something valuable in return? If it saves government money, team naming is an option that pro leagues absolutely, positively have to consider.

Oversubsidizing pro sports is much worse than overcommercializing them.

John Solomon

John Solomon is a New York writer.

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