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WILL PRO SPORTS FRANCHISES SOON SELL TEAM-NAMING RIGHTS?
DALLAS – The recent deal between Major League Soccer’s New York franchise and energy drink maker Red Bull in which the team was renamed “Red Bull New York” might be an indication that professional sports teams are warming up to the idea of selling team-naming rights.
“Eventually, you run out of inventory, of things to sell,” said Chris Smith, chief strategy officer for Dallas-based The Marketing Arm, which specializes in sports and event marketing. “You’ve sold the arena’s name, the seatbacks, the scoreboard, the steps, the basket supports, and so on. What’s left that has significant value? The team’s name.”
Make no mistake: Selling a team’s name to a corporate sponsor has been done before. Early basketball and baseball teams in the U.S. frequently included the sponsors name. In the 1930’s, the Detroit Altes Lagers went head-to-head with the Firestone Non-Skids in Midwest Basketball Conference action while the Toledo Red Man Tobaccos suited up as members of the American Basket Ball League. In the 1960’s, teams like the Goodyear Wingfoots battled the Ford Mustangs in AAU games.
In the late 1970s, Lipton Tea was the primary sponsor of the North American Soccer League’s New England Tea Men. The CBA’s Cedar Rapids Silver Bullets had a naming rights deal with Coors Light. And the Albany Patroons, minor league home to Phil Jackson, George Karl, and Bill Musselman, were renamed the “Capital Region Pontiacs” after team ownership struck a deal with the local car dealers.
More recently, the International Hockey League’s Detroit Vipers were named for the Dodge Viper. Ditto for the Detroit Neon and, later, the Detroit Safari, of the Continental Indoor Soccer League.
In 1999, the fledgling Collegiate Professional Basketball League inked Broadcast.com , Lycos and AcuNet.net to team-naming agreements, but the league folded before its first game. A few years later, in 2001, the NBA shot down a proposed move by Memphis-based FedEx to rename the relocating Vancouver Grizzlies franchise as the “Memphis Express.”
Then, in 2003, the NFL’s Chicago Bears signed a multimillion-dollar agreement with Bank One (now Chase) that closely linked the two brands with the phrase “Bears football presented by Bank One.”
The question is, does Red Bull’s deal open the team naming rights floodgates?
“It will probably be more of a trickle than a flood,” said Smith. “While sponsors are eager to step up, they understand the emotional attachment that fans have with the teams they love. There’s the potential for a strong negative backlash.”
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