Field of green
Maryland's sale of naming rights at Byrd Stadium is part of growing practice as athletic programs strive to compete
By Bill Ordine
August 25, 2006
When a new bank branch opens in the Twin Cities, it's possible that along with balloons and giveaway pens, customers will be greeted by Goldy the Gopher, the University of Minnesota mascot.
Appearances by the university mascot, spirit squad and football coach - as well as other considerations, such as access to names and addresses of hundreds of thousands of alumni and season-ticket holders for marketing purposes - are all part of a $35 million naming rights agreement between the school and TCF Bank. Minnesota's new, on-campus football stadium is expected to open in 2009.
The sale of naming rights to college athletic venues, while far less common than in the pro ranks, has become a growing practice as universities struggle to fund expensive sports programs.
The University of Maryland announced details yesterday of its $20 million, 25-year deal with Chevy Chase Bank to put the financial institution's name on the football field at Byrd Stadium, named after Harry C. "Curley" Byrd, the former university president, football coach and athlete.
"Athletic departments are going to go as far as they can in selling these rights in what has become the athletic arms race," said Dennis Howard, a professor in the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "It's become increasingly competitive and expensive to compete."
Maryland joins a still short but growing list of universities that have sold naming rights to football facilities. More common have been deals involving basketball arenas, such as the University of Washington's Bank of America Arena, Taco Bell Arena at Boise State and Maryland's Comcast Center.
However, while colleges have emulated pro sports in tapping into corporate America for additional revenue, there's the obvious distinction between the two enterprises - profit and education.
"It's something that many universities struggle with because no one has enough money," said Jan Boxill, a senior lecturer and director of the Parr Center for Ethics at the University of North Carolina who has written a book on sports ethics.
Boxill pointed out that accepting money from generous donors or even businesses in exchange for agreeing to name buildings, lecture halls and academic programs after the benefactors is nothing new for colleges.
"I wouldn't have a problem with it but there are some issues to consider. What kind of strings come with the money? Universities have turned down money from donors when they wanted to have a say in hiring," Boxill said.
"And then there's the issue of who you accept as a sponsor. If Playboy wanted to sponsor a stadium, I wouldn't think that would be an appropriate sign. And finally, you have to be sure there's no conflict of interest that a university official isn't benefiting from the arrangement."
And there is the question of where sponsorship lines are drawn.
If a corporate logo is acceptable on the side of an arena or on a scoreboard, how about on a jersey or helmet, such as in auto racing.
NCAA spokesman Erik Christianson said NCAA regulations limit uniform and equipment logos to the manufacturer or distributor of the apparel or equipment being used. So a Nike swoosh can appear on a jersey made by that company but a soft drink emblem on the back would be forbidden.
As far as the nature of the corporate sponsor, say a beer company as opposed to a bank or cable company, Christianson said the NCAA urges member schools "to make sure [name sponsors] fall within the values of that university and higher education."
Maryland president C.D. Mote Jr. said Chevy Chase was an ideal partner because the company understood the school's position: that the stadium name would not change and the name of the field would not be displayed outside the structure.
"We're not going to confuse what stadium this is," Mote said. "We basically laid out the conditions we needed in order to do this project. ... It wasn't a normal negotiation where each side puts their interest on the table. We said what we needed, and we looked for someone to take it. They were the first people we talked to.
"Our fit together is natural and firm. Our partnership really is a model for how a leading company and a leading university can work together to promote higher education and help the community."
For some Maryland fans and alumni, the field naming rights deal was a palatable solution.
"To me, it sounds like a pretty good situation," said Garrett LeCron, an attorney who has been going to Maryland games since 1980. "It's a little different than the entire Comcast Center being named after a cable company. This way, you still maintain the tradition associated with Curley Byrd."
Fabian Jimenez, a Maryland alumnus and member of the Maryland Gridiron Network, said the deal was the most realistic way of nearing the estimated $50.8 million needed for renovations to Byrd Stadium.
"I feel much better that you have a corporation like Chevy Chase willing to help, versus telling students we're going to raise your tuition because part of this is going to go to athletics," he said.
Not every Terrapin fan agreed, though.
"I do not see how this is great for the university," said alumnus and season-ticket holder Joe Trocino, who favored a fund-raising drive among alumni rather than corporate sponsorship. "Great for the department of intercollegiate athletics, perhaps, but in what way does the university generally benefit? Do today's students benefit from this? More academic scholarships? New and/or renovated classrooms? Lower tuition?"
Although the practice of attaching corporate names to athletic facilities has picked up momentum in the past decade or so, it's certainly not new. In one case, that name - Chicago's Wrigley Field, identified with former owner William Wrigley Jr.'s chewing gum company - has become almost revered.
In contrast, some names, paid for by either a big donor or corporation, have become embarrassments. Villanova named its new basketball arena duPont Pavilion but then took it down when the benefactor, John duPont, was convicted of murder in 1997. The Houston Astros found themselves stuck with Enron Field when that company's scandal broke in 2002. The Astros paid just over $2 million to get out of the deal and the ballpark has a more wholesome ring to it now, Minute Maid Park.
For university athletic programs facing funding problems, both to keep revenue-producing sports competitive and to pay for athletic programs that generate little cash, the temptation is likely to grow stronger to partner with corporations desperate to cut through the advertising clutter of print, electronic and cyber media.
"It's further evidence of what people call advertising creep," said Andrew Rohm, a professor of marketing at Northeastern University. "Now we have the seventh-inning stretch brought to you by whoever. And for Chevy Chase in the case of Maryland, it's a way to get its name out as people tune out traditional advertising."
When Minnesota's new stadium opens in three years, it will represent a move from the Metrodome back onto campus, which is considered a big plus for students, fans and the school. But not everyone will be happy to be sitting in TCF Stadium, including Democratic state Sen. Larry Pogemiller, an alumnus whose district includes the university and who waged an unsuccessful fight against the naming rights sale.
Because Minnesota is a land grant school and the state's largest employer, Pogemiller said, it is an institution of greater significance.
"To me, to sell the naming rights," Pogemiller said, "seems to be sending the message that everything in your state is for sale."