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What’s in a Name? $700 Million and a Few Headaches

Staples Center broke records announcing a $700 million naming rights deal to be renamed Crypto.com Arena starting Christmas day 2021. That much money can buy a lot of prestige, but there’s no guarantee anyone actually calls the arena by its new name. Naming rights deals aren’t limited to stadiums, skylines are full of buildings named for a price. Some were named more successfully than others. Public perception is hard to purchase. 

Naming rights in the United States trace its roots to the early days of baseball. Fenway Realty, owned by the family of Red Sox Owner John Taylor, saw the promotional possibility of attaching the realty firms’ name to the Red Sox’s baseball ground. That claim is disputed. Fenway Realty itself was named for a nearby parkland and no formal deal for the naming rights ever existed. Taylor’s readymade response for shamelessly plugging his family’s own company was to claim the ground was named the park, not the company. The dispute lasts to this day, Red Sox purists insist Fenway is one of the last bastions against the cynical practice of naming rights deals even though evidence suggests it was the genesis. 

Arguments over Fenway’s name’s origin cut to the heart of naming rights issues. From the very beginning, there’s been a public backlash to naming rights deals that’s been creating headaches for property owners for decades. Taylor denied the name’s connection to his family from the outset to fend of critics. How a place gets its name and what people actually call it is usually a tangle of history, culture, and language with a deep meaning that’s difficult to unwind. Paying for a name is somehow tantamount to paying for local culture and history. A name’s ubiquity requires positive public perception, which is hard to buy. Public backlash over the crass commercialization using beloved institutions for marketing purposes began over a century ago but continues to this day. 

Whatchu talkin ‘bout Willis?

The issue is particularly relevant for stadiums and arenas with deep cultural ties to the surrounding area but backlash over naming rights deals involving iconic offices with major significance to their city is also common. There’s no better example of this backlash to office naming rights deals than a certain iconic 110-story skyscraper in Chicago. The tallest building in the world for over two decades, the office tower was known as Sears Tower through multiple ownership changes until 2009. London-based insurance broker Willis Group Holdings agreed to lease several floors, obtaining naming rights as part of the deal. On paper, the asset is now called Willis Tower. In Chicago, it will always be Sears Tower. 

“If anyone calls it Willis Tower, that’s a dead give away they’re a tourist or a transplant,” Chicago native Eleana Thornton said. 

If you ask a Chicagoan for directions to Willis Tower, they will feign ignorance. I’ve experienced it first hand. ‘Willis Tower? Who’s that?’ they ruefully inquire. Oh, you mean Sears Tower. They may have a point. Refusal to call the building Willis Tower appears to be paying off. Willis Group Holdings recently rebranded under the Aon banner in a $30 billion deal, the Willis name is not long for this world. So where does that leave Willis Tower?

Willis’ original deal has the firm paying $1 million a year for naming rights to the nearly 4 million square foot office through 2025. Switching the name to Aon Tower doesn’t make much sense, Aon Center in Chicago’s East Loop is already a well-established name and with so little term left on the original lease, any name change has the possibility of only being temporary, further angering locals. United Airlines, leasing 850,000 in the building through 2033, was offered naming rights but turned them down. The name could change to some name based on the address, 233 South Wacker. Wacker Tower, Two-Three-Three, or The Wacker have all been proposed. Locals want the name to revert back to Sears Tower. Aon-Sears Tower could be a nice compromise. 

All the money in the world is not enough to convince Chicagoans to call the building Willis Tower. There is no guarantee naming rights for the building going forward have any better chance of becoming common parlance than Willis Tower did. The hearty Midwesterners of Chicago may be stubborn and focused on tradition, but distaste for the practice of selling naming rights is universal. Practically every city with a skyline has some building locals refuse to rename even though some company is paying millions for a name no one uses. Houston has Transco Tower. San Francisco has Transbay Tower. CenTrust Tower in Miami has had five different names. Some names stick better than others. 

World of hurt 

World Trade Center is a building name few will ever forget, but even that storied name has its own drama around naming rights. The World Trade Centers Association charges its more than 300 members an initiation fee of $250,000 and annual dues of $12,500 for the right to call their building a World Trade Center. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has claimed the WTCA has been wrongfully profiting off the World Trade Center brand for decades. The Port Authority built the original World Trade Centers, occupied the buildings for decades, and rebuilt One World Trade Center after 9/11 but does not own the naming rights to the building. In 1986 the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sold the naming rights to an outgoing executive Guy Tozzoli for just $10. Tozzoli kept the price a secret till he died. Documents revealed after his passing show Tozzoli was supplementing his Port Authrpoity pension with a $626,000 salary for one hour of work at the WTCA a week. The revelation reignited controversy over naming rights, drawing the ire of State officials and an investigation from the New York Attorney General. 

“The World Trade Center has become a public symbol of our city, state and nation,” then-Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “It is troubling that an organization has made millions of dollars off the sale of what in essence belongs to the public.”

A deal is a deal though and it appears Tozzoli made a great one. In 2018 a New York Judge ruled that while the WTCA did not own trademark rights, the original deal struck gave WTCA ownership of the mark for services and licensing. The WTCA has licensed the name to 323 properties in 90 different countries making it by far the world’s most popular and profitable naming rights association. 

The name game

Entities paying lawyers millions to argue about who owns a name is all part of the absurdity surrounding naming rights. The public’s perception of the World Trade Center has nothing to do with arcane legal documents only a handful of people have actually seen. Paying for a name no one uses seems absurd, but naming rights deals do work. Changing names seems to be the issue. One corporate deal is acceptable but subsequent deals to change a name are met with hostility. Sometimes changing a name is necessary, like when Enron Field in Houston changed to Minute Maid Park. Some names themselves are absurd like Guaranteed Rate Field, KFC Yum! Center and the University of Phoenix Stadium, where the University does not play because it’s an online school. A good naming rights deal is about being connected to the locals. Ford Field in Detroit works because of the automaker’s deep connections and investment in the Motor City. 

The office world is unlikely to ever reach the heights of stadium naming rights. Stadiums host major events and are regularly featured on national sports broadcasts. In the office sector, naming rights deals are part of larger lease negotiations. Naming rights often get thrown in to sweeten a deal, paid for in a complicated mix of concessions. You won’t find any $700 million naming deals at office buildings. Considering the drama surrounding name changes, that may be for the best. 

It all comes down to nostalgia and change. People know things one way, training yourself to call a place something else is something many simply don’t want to do. When people associate that place with great memories, it’s even more difficult. Staples Center is the ‘House That Kobe Built,’ where the late star played all 20 of his NBA seasons. The arena was a gathering place for grieving fans after Bryant’s deadly crash, holding a memorial service for him, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and eight other victims in the crash less than a month after the incident. 

In some different world, renaming Staples Center to something that honored the legendary career of Kobe might make sense. At the very least, locals don’t want to see the name changed. But that’s not the world we live in and it never has been. From Fenway Park to the very first formal naming rights deal struck between Anheuser-Busch and the St. Louis Cardinals to Crypto.com Arena, naming rights have been fully commercialized. Stadiums and offices without naming rights are the exceptions to the rule. The history, culture, and language that creates place names are also tangled in business. 

“I understand the disappointment the fans will have. But that’s just the way of the world. This is the business we’re in. Almost universally around the country, there’s a business element to naming rights for the arenas. It’s really out of our control,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. 

Some naming rights deals may be more effective than others but that won’t stop businesses from trying. The right to name doesn’t make it mandatory, there’s no law on any book requiring any person to use the name. Fans and locals aren’t being paid to call it that, the owner is. Popular sports site Defector took a stand by creating an official policy not to identify stadiums by their sponsored name. It might always be Sears Tower. It might always be Staples Center. For owners, that’s fine as long as the checks clear. Just don’t expect anyone to like or use the name.

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