Sunday, July 18, 1999

Browns buck trend of selling stadium name




BY JOHN J. BYCZKOWSKI
credit The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Just when it seems that baseball and football stadiums are beginning to look like advertising-covered stock cars, the Cleveland Browns took an odd step backwards.

        And it's a step the Reds and Bengals are keeping their eyes on.

        The rebirth of the NFL franchise is set for this fall, and the team decided to name its new stadium, simply, “Cleveland Browns Stadium.”

        Sounds great, especially if you're a sports fan who embraces tradition. But the team seemingly passed up a chance for tens of millions of dollars in revenue over the next decade or so to sell the naming rights.

        So the Browns did what they considered the next best thing: The team divided the naming rights into quarters, selling the naming rights of each of the new stadium's four gates to the Cleveland Clinic, the CoreComm telephone company, National City Bank and medical products company STERIS.

        “It is imperative to generate as much revenue as possible to compete in the modern day National Football League,” said team president Carmen Policy, “but we challenged ourselves to do this while not compromising the integrity of the name for Cleveland Browns Stadium.”

        What the Browns did reflects a growing body of thought that sports fans want more sport and fewer sales pitches. Sports teams need more revenues to pay rising player salaries, as well as to meet demands that they pay part of the way in building new facilities. At the same time, the increased emphasis on turning a buck may be turning fans away.

        The Reds and Bengals are both conscious of this as they build new stadiums. The Reds haven't decided but won't rule out selling naming rights, and management wants to be discreet about other advertising in the team's new stadium, expected to open for the 2003 season.

        The Bengals have already chosen the name “Paul Brown Stadium,” after the team's Hall-of-Fame founder, and have a high-tech plan for accommodating willing sponsors.

        Kevin Grace of the University of Cincinnati said he likes what the Browns did and hopes the trend will continue.

        Mr. Grace is assistant head of the university's archives, a huge baseball fan, an instructor for courses on sports and society, and collector of data on naming rights deals for stadiums and arenas.

        Naming rights deals, he's found, are getting richer and longer:

        • American Airlines Center in Dallas: $195 million for 30 years.

        • Staples Center in Los Angeles: $100 million for 20 years.

        • Phillips Arena in Atlanta: $168 million for 20 years.

        • Pepsi Center in Denver: $68 million for 20 years.

        • Air Canada Centre in Toronto: $40 million for 20 years.

        The trouble with these deals, however, is that the teams lose their identity, Mr. Grace said. In Cleveland, the Browns' owners “are revitalizing the franchise and helping the fans identify with the franchise” by keeping the Browns name on the stadium, he said.

        Naming the entrances allows the Browns to shorten the deals and rotate the names — and the prices — more often. Their strategy: In the end, these four could generate more revenue than a single, long-term deal.

        “By naming those entrances, they're easier to revolve in terms of revenues,” he said. “It makes a lot of economic sense. But, more important, it makes community sense.”

        In an age of free agency, franchise moves and new arenas, “we have a real problem in this country now with fan identification with franchises,” Mr. Grace said. “If (more franchises) go the route of Cleveland, everybody wins. You build a strong fan base, stronger identification in the community, and the owners can still get the revenue.”

        The Browns didn't disclose what they'll make on these deals. “We did not get as much as if we had actually sold the name of the stadium,” said Todd Stewart, the Browns' director of publicity.

        He said naming rights deals typically bring in $5 million per year, and the Browns arrangement with four sponsors will bring in less than that. Each sponsor's name will be displayed on a sign over the proper gate and will be printed on each fan's ticket.

        The Bengals, for their new stadium, won't even go as far at the Browns did.

        “We're trying to maintain an identity with our fans with the stadium naming,” said Todd Blackburn, the team's director of stadium development. “We're not looking to degrade that by piecing off the stadium.”

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