Callaghan: Governments not yet ready to enter naming-rights arena

By Peter Callaghan, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoPeter Callaghan covers the state Legislature for The News Tribune in Tacoma. Blog: thenewstribune.com/politics; or Twitter: @CallaghanPeter. Reach him at peter.callaghan@thenewstribune.com.

Sorry, Robert Pattison. History is fine and all, but it didn't pay the bills for Philadelphia's subway system. So the transit agency accepted AT&T's offer to rename Pattison station, which serves the city's big sports stadiums.

In exchange, the struggling agency will get $3.4 million over four years and the long-dead former governor will have to be remembered by the surface street above, at least until that's sold, too.

While such government naming rights deals are still rare — at least outside the arena of, well, arenas — it is beginning to become a bit more common. Toronto has a special office in City Hall devoted to soliciting naming rights deals for civic buildings and facilities. "Sponsor Winnipeg" offers both individuals and companies the chance to "brand" everything from park benches and umbrellas at kiddie pools to city-owned golf courses. Reforest California is a drive to replant 1 million trees to replace those lost in recent fires. Sponsors are Coca-Cola and a regional grocery chain.

In Olympia, cash-strapped lawmakers continue to look at two bills to sell branding rights to such entities as the Narrows bridges, highways and prominent buildings. (Remember: All references to the potential sale of naming rights by a government entity must be preceded by the phrase "cash-strapped" or some variant thereof — see "struggling," "cash-poor" and "flat broke.")

The last time I wrote about House Bills 1050 and 1051, it was to dismiss the idea of selling public things to private companies. When Thomas Wills wrote to say he had some expertise in the subject, I hoped he would agree that it was an unrealistic dream by cash-strapped (see above) politicians. He did agree. And then he didn't agree. That is, the time may not be now, but the time is probably coming. And Wills knows what he is talking about, making up half of one of the world's big naming-rights consultants — Bonham/Wills & Associates of Vancouver, B.C. Dean Bonham helped broker the deal that led to Qwest and later Century Link Field in Seattle.

"At the moment, corporations are reluctant," Wills said of interest in sponsoring facilities other than sports venues. "I think there's pushback from the public." Why the pushback? Taxpayers view it as selling out. "It just seems like blatant advertising. The public just doesn't see the benefit," Wills said. "The last thing (companies) want is to spend marketing money to gain negative impressions."

Clear public benefit

Wills suggests governments do the work ahead of time to know the value of their offerings and then work with a potential sponsor on a deal that gives a clear public benefit. For example, when Chicago was building Millennium Park, it sold the naming rights for "BP Bridge" in order to finish the Frank Gehry-designed pedestrian bridge. Without the $6 million from the big oil company, the bridge would not exist.

So, simply renaming existing facilities paid for by the public might not be very well accepted? Wills said if some additional benefit is given the public, and some additional benefit provided the sponsor, it might work. If AT&T paid to brand the Narrows bridge, it might also want to give drivers a discounted toll if they paid with a cellphone on AT&T's network, Wells proposed.

What about cash-strapped Washington state parks? Despite the apparent success of Reforest California, Wills said, "I think at this point the public won't be there, so corporations won't be there."

If the bills in Olympia should pass and if Wills had the state as a client, what would he advise?

"Take it slow, find the value for the sponsor," he said. "Don't jump off the bridge too quickly. I think in five to 10 years down the road, this will be much more commonplace."

But don't expect to make a ton of dough, either.

"Naming of municipal properties is still in its infancy, and it will be very unlikely that it will garner stadium-like naming rights revenue," Wills said.