Purist fans decry corporate stadium naming-rights deals as another step in the crass commercialization of sports. Owners see the deals in a different light; a well-negotiated package can bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for a team. Sixty years ago, no one would have seen this debate coming. At the time, stadiums and arenas were mostly named after people or their geographic location, and now it's a bit unusual to see a stadium going by such a nondescript moniker.
So how did our stadiums become billboards capable of seating thousands of people? Here's a bit of history, including the current kerfuffle over whether Citigroup, which needs federal assistance to stay afloat, should be plunking down $400 million for a stadium naming deal with the New York Mets.
If you thought Anheuser-Busch's only advertising breakthroughs were Clydesdales and talking frogs, think again. In 1953, the brewery wanted to buy the naming rights for Sportsman's Park, the home of the St. Louis Cardinals, and rename the park "Budweiser Stadium." National League President Ford C. Frick wasn't so hot on naming a stadium after booze, but he allowed Augustus Busch to stick his family's surname on the park. The Cardinals opened the 1954 season in Busch Stadium. Anheuser-Busch quickly rolled out "Busch Bavarian Beer" to take advantage of this advertising. This Busch Stadium closed in 1966, but the Cardinals' two subsequent homes have kept the name. Busch Bavarian Beer morphed into what's now Busch and Busch Light, so thank Ford C. Frick and Stan Musial the next time you play beer pong with those suds.
When a team sells its naming rights to a corporation, even the mascots are crossing their fingers that nothing goes terribly and embarrassingly wrong during the life of the deal. Just ask the Houston Astros. The team thought it had pretty much taken care of naming its beautiful new stadium when it signed a 30-year, $100 million deal with a local energy company in 1999. The same company's CEO and chairman threw out the ballpark's first-ever ceremonial first pitch when the stadium opened in April 2000. As you may remember, Enron was the sponsor, and its disgraced leader Ken Lay tossed out that pitch. The Astros actually bought the naming rights back from Enron for $2.1 million after the energy giant's scandal and fall, and quickly sold them to Minute Maid for a rumored $100 million-plus over 28 years.
But they weren't alone. The Astros weren't the only team to suffer such a debacle. The Tennessee Titans couldn't have liked playing in Adelphia Coliseum after the cable company went bankrupt due to massive internal corruption. The Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins thought they were getting a great deal when they sold the naming rights to Joe Robbie Stadium to Pro Player, a company you might remember for making sports-themed outerwear in the mid-90's that was very similar to Starter's but nowhere near as cool (at least not at my middle school). Pro Player was part of Fruit of the Loom, which liquidated the division as part of a 1999 bankruptcy episode. Unfortunately for Miami's teams, the stadium-naming deal was for a full decade, and the name Pro Player Stadium stuck until 2005.
The University of Missouri learned this one the hard way. When Mizzou opened its new basketball arena in 2004, it bore the name "Paige Sports Arena." The titular Paige was Elizabeth Paige Laurie, the daughter of Wal-Mart heiress Nancy Laurie and her husband Bill. The couple had donated $25 million to help build the arena. This name seemed like an odd but endearing gesture from ultra-rich parents, but it was a bit puzzling, particularly since Paige went to college at USC, not Missouri.
It turned out, however, that this wasn't the first time one of the Lauries had opened their wallet in a major way on a college campus. Later that year Paige's freshman-year roommate at USC revealed that Paige had paid her $20,000 to write Paige's papers and do other coursework at USC. The Laurie parents promptly returned the arena's naming rights to the university following this scandal.
Mizzou wasn't alone in this sort of embarrassment, though. Villanova's basketball arena, the Pavilion, was originally du Pont Pavilion in honor of John Eleuthere du Pont, a du Pont heir and philanthropist. This name sounded great when the arena opened in 1986, particularly since du Pont had helped fund the construction. It took a decidedly sinister turn in 1996, when du Pont, a paranoid schizophrenic, murdered Olympic wrestling gold medalist David Schultz. Following his conviction, the venue's name changed to just "the Pavilion."
When the St. Louis Rams moved to town in 1995, they played the first half of their home slate in Busch Stadium while waiting for their new dome to open. The team then moved into the Trans World Dome, named after Trans World Airlines. Unfortunately TWA could lose money as quickly as the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams offense could score touchdowns, and in 2001 American Airlines bought TWA, which was bankrupt. American Airlines didn't want the naming rights to the stadium, though, so the dome picked up the generic name "Dome at America's Center" for a season before brokerage Edward Jones bought the rights in early 2002. Apparently American Airlines wasn't opposed to all naming-rights deals though; it now has its name emblazoned on two different NBA arenas, the homes of the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat.