If you want to bring a joyous Patriots fan down to earth, ask him to remind you of the name of the place where New England will play next year. CMGI Field may be an unwieldy mouthful, but it was only one of the awkward titles borne of the stadium naming rights boom that began in the late 1990s. Between '98 and 2000,27 teams struck naming rights deals with corporate sponsors worth an average of nearly $100 million each. Now, however, along with the national economy the naming rights market is sputtering, leaving a number of teams searching for any sponsor and several teams scrambling to get out of fruitless or image-damaging partnerships.
Both the Ravens' PSINet Stadium and the Panthers' National Car Rental Center have been left out in the cold recently after their title sponsors filed for bankruptcy. More notoriously, the Astros filed a motion on Feb. 5 seeking a release from their deal with scandal-tainted Enron. In the meantime no fewer than 15 venues are searching for corporate partners. The Seahawks, for example, are only months away from opening their new stadium but are still looking to set up a naming rights deal.
Teams that have formed partnerships are doing so cautiously. "We weren't in a hurry," says Eric Stisser, director of corporate sales and marketing for the Rams, who after a yearlong search signed a $31-8 million contract last month that will allow brokerage firm Edward Jones to lend its name to their stadium, the erstwhile Trans World (as in the defunct airline TWA) Dome. "We wanted to make sure we were getting involved with a company that would be around for a while."
Like the economy, the naming rights market will bounce back. "Sponsorship deals are a necessity," says Dean Bonham of the Bonham Group, a sports marketing firm that orchestrated a number of stadium deals. "The vast majority of team owners need the revenues, and low-profile companies need to become recognizable names." That's why CMGI has no intention of breaking its 15-year, $114 million commitment to the Patriots, even though the stock of the Internet firm has plummeted 95% since the deal was signed in 2000. In other words, tough luck, Pats fans.