Since the death of Unitas on Wednesday of a heart attack, many fans have suggested renaming Ravens Stadium for him. An online petition asking that the building be renamed Johnny Unitas Memorial Stadium has attracted more than 47,000 signatures.
The team's owners declined to discuss the stadium's name, saying it is too soon after Unitas' death. "We just don't want to discuss it right now," Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said yesterday. The Ravens have said they need revenue from a naming sponsor to field a competitive team.
Selling the name of a stadium to a corporate sponsor has become commonplace in sports. Deals can attract upward of $5 million a year.
But a few teams have avoided commercialization and experts say the Ravens - whose previous naming rights sponsor, PSINet Inc., went bankrupt - could do the same.
When Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown obtained the rights to name his team's new stadium, he opted to honor his father, the founder of the franchise.The team has played in Paul Brown Stadium since it opened in 2000.
"Naming rights were explored but it was the strong sentiment of our owner that unless there was something that was too good to believe he preferred not to go the corporate naming route," said Bengals spokesman Jack Brennan.
The rights were valued at $16.7 million in the team's 30-year lease. Its terms required a percentage of that value to be paid to Hamilton County. The Bengals paid $5 million to the county and waived the potential income, according to The Dayton Daily News.
So far the lost revenue hasn't hampered the team's finances, Brennan said. "Every team pays about the same for players with the salary cap," he said.
"There are so many inputs and outputs that go into forming the budget of our team, they just worked it into the budget and whatever it cost us was, in the opinion of management here, worth it," he said.
The names of a few other new facilities remain ad-free. Officials considered but rejected seeking a corporate sponsor for the rebuilt Georgia Dome. In Oregon, the Rose Garden is named for the region's bountiful foliage, while the arena's gates, or "totems," carry the name of paying sponsors.
After criticism following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Chicago Bears agreed not to jettison the name of Soldier Field. The building is undergoing a massive renovation.
The Cleveland Browns also have avoided commercializing their field's name. The team, an expansion franchise sold to banker Al Lerner after the original one relocated to Baltimore in 1995, obtained the right to sell the stadium's name in its lease. But Lerner opted not to, after fans objected. The team has played at Cleveland Browns Stadium since it opened in 1999.
"It is from our owner directly. He would prefer to keep the tradition of the community and the NFL," Browns spokesman Nathan Boudreaux said.
Instead, the team sold the names of the stadium's four tower-like gates. Fans enter and leave through the Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Gate, the National City Gate, Steris Gate or the First Energy Gate.
"The best public relations move the Ravens could make after going through the PSINet debacle is to follow the Cleveland Browns model," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant.
He estimates that the Browns' "gate sponsorships" have paid half to two-thirds of what a full-fledged stadium naming deal would have paid.
Naming rights deals are difficult to value. Figures often include benefits to the sponsor beyond a name on the building. The PSINet deal, struck in 1999, was known as a "presenting sponsorship."
The Internet services firm paid $9.25 million the first year and was scheduled to make annual payments of $2.55 million, to be adjusted for inflation, over the next 19 years, according to documents filed with federal regulators.
In exchange for its payments, PSINet received premier skyboxes, the right to call itself an official Ravens sponsor, commercial time on pre-game shows, ads in game programs and other benefits.
The Maryland Stadium Authority, which sold the team the naming rights for $10 million, estimated in 1999 the naming portion was worth $1 million a year.
The Ravens agreed earlier this year to pay PSINet creditors $5.9 million to reclaim the rights to the stadium name. The company is being liquidated.
Ganis, who has negotiated naming rights deals, said a company would probably pay $2 million to $3 million a year for the name itself. Ganis said a loss of $3 million a year would not be catastrophic, but neither would it be insignificant.
"It could be a very expensive piece of philanthropy," he said.
Documents the Ravens prepared when they were sold in 2000 and obtained by The Sun projected revenues of $137 million this year.
Thomas Chema, a partner with the law firm of Arter & Hadden in Cleveland, said the team could protect its revenue stream while honoring Unitas.
"There are a number of ways to skin that cat," said Chema, who was executive director of the public agency that built Jacobs Field for the Indians and Gund Arena for the Cavaliers.
Though unlikely, it is possible a consortium of local corporations would come forward and agree to compensate the Ravens for calling the stadium "Unitas Field," he said. "I don't see why that couldn't happen," he said.
The Ravens could even sell the rights for $1 a year to a charitable foundation that would agree to name the building for Unitas. The difference between the market value and the $1 payment may be considered a donation for the Ravens, saving money on taxes, Chema said.
Kevin Lovitt, an executive at sports marketing giant IMG, in Charlotte, N.C., said the Ravens have included the revenues from a naming rights deal in their financial projections. Going without would leave a hole in the books.
"That's $5 million they wouldn't have to afford players," Lovitt said.
In Cleveland, none of the three major-league teams play in stadiums with corporate names. The owners of the baseball and basketball teams agreed in the late 1980s to contribute $14 million over 20 years toward construction of the facilities to honor their family names.
Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Center for Sports Administration at the University of Oregon, pointed to Denver, where the Broncos' desire for revenues was balanced with the city's emotional attachment to the old Mile High Stadium when a replacement opened last year.
The result: Invesco Field at Mile High.
Of course, a sponsor is going to want a discount if it has to share its name.
"Because the state and the city picked up a lot of the cost of that building, if there is any team that could afford to do that it would be the Ravens," Burton said.
The Ravens have one of the most lucrative stadium arrangements in sports. The building cost $229 million to construct, not including the $100 million spent to acquire and clear the land that sits under it and the adjacent Oriole Park. Both were financed largely through bonds backed by the state lottery.
The Ravens' contribution was disputed in an arbitration brought by the Orioles. The arbitrators found it was $24 million. The stadium authority and Ravens say it was $34 million.