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Naming for Dollars

by Anne Schwartz, May 13, 2002
 

The New York Botanical Garden features the Con Edison Pond Gallery, the Texaco Kids and the Mitsubishi Wild Wetland Trail. The new baseball stadium for the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones is named after the local energy company, Keyspan (formerly Brooklyn Union Gas). The Children's Museum of Manhattan includes the Time-Warner Media Center. Two theaters on 42nd Street were renamed the American Airlines Theater and the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, and a third theater, the Winter Garden, former home to "Cats," current home of "Mamma Mia," is about to be renamed the Cadillac Winter Garden Theater. So when Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested recently that the city's parks could be named after corporate sponsors as a way of helping to pay for their upkeep, it was a logical extension of a trend, begun with stadiums and now being adopted by non-profit institutions, to trade the rights to a name for corporate dollars.

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In suggesting that parks be named for corporate donors, the mayor acknowledged the success of public-private partnerships in helping to fix up and maintain the city's parks over the last few decades. And he was no doubt aware of how much money the owners of stadiums and theaters and other facilities have raised by selling naming rights. While the mayor mentioned only parks, his idea could be extended to schools, libraries, subway stations, streets.

With the city facing a multibillion dollar budget shortfall and parks slated for their lowest budget in 10 years, some parks advocates welcome the private sector's involvement in parks and would not be opposed to giving naming rights to corporate donors. But other New Yorkers think such deals, no matter how much money they bring in, are a bad bargain. A letter to the mayor signed by 27 scholars and other prominent New Yorkers said, "to rename the parks for corporations would be literally to sell the city - its heart and soul - for money."

NAMING RITES

The selling of corporate naming rights, which began in earnest with sports stadiums in the late 1980s, has become something of a mania. A couple even tried to auction off the naming rights to their newborn child (there were no takers). Nearly half of the nation's major sports arenas now bear the names of corporations, and corporate names are increasingly common in minor league and even college and town playing fields. The practice has spread to convention centers, malls, airports, hospitals, theaters, and museums. The Smithsonian Institution recently named the theater in its National Air and Space Museum after the Lockheed Martin Corporation, which donated $10 million to the museum.

Renaming long has been a preoccupation in New York City. So much time is taken up at the City Council to renaming streets - according to one estimate, about two-thirds of all council bills! - that Councilmember James Oddo has proposed "taking the City Council out of the 'name change game,'" and turning it over to community boards.

But New York City has only recently begun to warm to the national trend of trading names for money.

The amounts of money involved can be substantial. The record so far is the price tag of $300 million ($10 million a year for 30 years) for adding the corporate name "Reliant" to five arenas in a Houston complex that includes the stadium for the Houston Texans. More modest is the $5 million gift for the new building of Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum, which becomes the "Please Touch Museum Presented by McDonald's."

It is clear what the corporations get out of this. Keyspan Energy Services put its name on the new stadium on Coney Island (for an undisclosed sum) to invest in an area that it serves, according to spokesman Robert Mahony. But, Mahony conceded, the company was able to justify the investment to its shareholders because of the advertising return. "It was an excellent opportunity to associate the name of the company with Brooklyn, with the New York Mets, and with bringing baseball back to Brooklyn."

And stadium deals offer a company more than just publicity and marketing value. Corporations attaching their names to stadiums typically get free tickets, luxury suites, parking privileges, and sometimes the opportunity to sell their products at the stadium.

Cities are starting to consider the idea of selling naming rights to municipal facilities, although the rewards are lower and the risk of backlash higher than for more commercial sites. There have been suggestions in various places to offer naming rights for subway stations, school buildings or highways, but Mayor Bloomberg appears to be the first to promote the idea for parks.

There are many successful examples of other types of business support for parks. The National Park Foundation has five major corporate "partners" that have made "multi-million dollar, multi-year contributions" to the national parks, according to foundation spokesman Mike Bento. Detailed guidelines, issued by the parks service, limit how donors can be recognized. For example, permanent signage and naming are not allowed. "What's been proven is that you can get corporations involved without sacrificing the very special nature of the parks," Bento said.

Corporations also sponsor events and programs at municipal parks all over the country. For example, Pathmark and M&M covered the cost of the Easter Eggstravaganza held recently in Central Park. Typically, the identification of the corporate donor is low-key, and sponsors often have a logical tie-in to the event or program.

The city parks commissioner, Adrian Benepe, has said he would like to take existing corporate partnerships a step further by offering naming rights in exchange for the construction and maintenance of a facility. Although the proposal has not gone farther than the concept stage, said department spokeswoman Jane Rudolph, "the goal is not to make Central Park change its name. The goal is to take specific facilities or a special garden like the Heather Garden in Fort Tryon Park and possibly give it a sponsorship."

Another facility that has been mentioned for corporate support is the track and field complex being built on Randalls Island.

The most concrete plan put forth by the Bloomberg administration is to sell advertising space within city recreation facilities. For example, a corporation may pay to have its billboard displayed on the walls of an indoor basketball court.

Any corporate identification would be tasteful and low-key, said Rudolph. "Nobody at parks is going to turn any facility into a corporate name with huge flashing signs," she said.

PRIVATE NAMES=LESS PUBLIC FUNDING?

Whether handled tactfully or otherwise, the idea of selling the naming rights to parks raises a number of questions.

A major pitfall of corporate naming for public spaces like parks is that it tends to erode the government's obligation to fund what are traditionally public services, according to Jerold Kayden, associate professor of urban planning at Harvard Graduate School of Design. "It decreases the necessity of public funding in ways that can have an ultimately corrosive effect on lots of public activities," he said. "It leads us to abandon, step by step by step, down a slippery slope, a commitment of public tax dollars to certain things that are not deemed high priorities."

Yet the public and the government have little control over how long the private support will continue, as the cultural institutions in Houston so painfully learned when a bankrupt Enron couldn't come through with promised donations. If the private sector pulls out, it can be a struggle to get the city to restore former levels of funding.

Also, would corporate donations help the parks that are most in need -- small parks in poor neighborhoods in the outer boroughs? The parks department could try to direct corporate gifts to those areas or earmark a percentage of the donation to the entire system, but the project would ultimately depend on what a corporation is interested in funding, and corporations would probably be interested in high-profile, popular spots.

In New York City, private funds may have already contributed to the decline of public funding for parks. A concerted effort by private donors and volunteers helped turn around Central Park, and then other parks in the city. Yet even when the city's budget was flush during the 1990s, New York continued to trim the parks department budget and encourage the department to raise a greater share from private donors and concessions.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Many buildings and public spaces - hospitals, theaters, plazas, gardens - are named for philanthropists who donated money for their construction or renovation: in Central Park, for example, there are the Delacorte Theater and the Wollman Rink. How is this different from naming a public space after a donor that happens to be a business?

Critics see many differences. These public places have been named for individuals being honored for their generosity, public service, or importance to history - not as a quid-pro-quo with profit-making companies.

"It's the sale of New York's great heritage to some corporate donor, which is sad and unfortunate," said Gary Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a non-profit organization founded by Ralph Nader to oppose commercialism. "Across the country, a wave of sponsorships is turning municipalities into marketing agents," he said, arguing that it is not the proper role of cities to promote corporations that pollute, sell unhealthy products, or exploit low-earning workers overseas.

Cigarette and liquor companies, as well as businesses involved in disputes or selling controversial products, would probably be off limits. But to Ruskin the concept of putting any corporate name on parks in particular poses problems. "These parks exist to give people a respite from the aggressive hawking of products and huckstering that we are all subject to on a minute-to-minute basis in our society," he said. "Naming rights defeats that worthy purpose."

Similar concerns led the people of Boston to block a plan to sell the naming rights to four of the busiest stations in their subway system. As one reader wrote in The Boston Globe, "Post a bond or raise taxes, but please do not make us say the names of corporations when we describe where we go."

But maybe corporations should keep out of this name game simply for their own good. Several commentators have detected a "naming rights curse." A number of firms that placed their names on stadiums soon saw their stock drop or even went bankrupt. (A web site tracks the stock prices of companies that purchased naming rights to sports arenas). The list of bankrupt sponsors includes PSINet, TWA, Pro Player and, most notoriously, Enron. Earlier this year, after Enron fell into disgrace, the Houston Astros bought back the naming rights, and changed Enron Field back to Astro Field - until the team can find another corporation willing to spend millions of dollars a year to put its name on the ballpark.

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