Orioles explore right to sell ballpark's name

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Orioles have begun to explore selling the name of 8-year-old Oriole Park at Camden Yards to a corporate sponsor.

The team stressed yesterday that it has made no decision but wants the right to do so.

At the heart of the issue is the deal the Ravens secured in 1997, when they paid $10 million to the Maryland Stadium Authority for the naming rights for their new stadium. The football team then signed a $105.5 million deal with PSINet Inc. that included putting the Herndon, Va.-based company's name on the building.

That deal has the Orioles wondering what's available to them.

The Orioles are preparing for arbitration with the Stadium Authority, which owns Oriole Park and neighboring PSINet Stadium. The baseball team claims its lease is inferior to what was negotiated with the Ravens. The Stadium Authority rejects that claim, and is preparing to argue that the Orioles' deal is, in some respects, sweeter than the Ravens'.

The matter is still months from being heard, and could take as much as a year to be resolved.

Even if the Orioles do not chose to sell the name of the ballpark, they need to know its potential value for their legal case against the Stadium Authority, said Alan Rifkin, the team's attorney.

"We believe we deserve the same lease rights the Ravens were granted," Rifkin said.

Holding the rights to name the stadium would also boost the club's value for any refinancing and other internal matters, even though the right is not exercised, he said.

The Orioles' lease would have to be amended to allow them to buy the naming rights. Alison Asti, general counsel for the Stadium Authority, said if the agency is approached by the team, it will consider both the good will built up in the name and the economic benefit. The Board of Public Works, comprising three top state officials, would also have to approve a change.

The Stadium Authority has an incentive to raise money, though. The state-built twin-stadium Camden Yards complex cost more than $500 million. But rent the Orioles paid last year fell about $1 million short of the approximately $7.5 million in operating and maintenance costs at its park.

"We are not out marketing the naming rights, and under our lease at the present time, we do not have the right to," said Joe Foss, the Orioles' chairman and chief operating officer.

But, the Orioles have contacted at least one company that has negotiated naming rights deals for other teams to begin the process, according to a source with direct knowledge of the inquiry.

Selling the naming rights to stadiums and arenas came in vogue in the mid-1990s, several years after Oriole Park opened. As stadium construction proliferates and competition for players gets more expensive, owners are looking for more sources of revenue, said those who negotiate the deals.

The multimillion dollar deals not only help defray costs but generally give teams new marketing partners or other services. Most of the newer stadiums across the country carry a corporate name.

The Orioles can't ignore growing fiscal pressures, even though taking on a corporate partner may be distasteful to fans, said David Cope of Gilco Sports and Entertainment Marketing.

Before Oriole Park opened in 1992, the team considered a corporate name and dismissed it, said Cope, who worked for the Orioles from 1987 until 1994. In the past 8 1/2 seasons, the park has become one of the most well known and most copied in the nation for its retro features and modern amenities.

But the Orioles have an $81.4 million payroll, the fourth highest in baseball, according to an Associated Press survey.

"They may need to generate some money," Cope said. "Or they may just be sticking their toes in the water to see what they could get."

That figure most certainly would be considerable. And most deals now include more than just the naming rights, said E.J. Narcise, a senior vice president at SFX Sports Group, which facilitates deals.

For example, the $100 million, 30-year deal Enron Corp. signed with the Houston Astros this year -- the richest deal for a baseball stadium -- included the rights to energy services management at the ballpark. The $30 million, 15-year deal Coors Brewing Co. signed with the Colorado Rockies in 1995 included an ownership stake in the team.

Several existing stadiums also have changed their names, sometimes to fierce public backlash. An example is San Francisco's Candlestick Park, which became 3Com Park. Another, less volatile, example, is Washington's Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, which became FedEx Field.

FedEx's $205 million, 27-year deal with the Washington Redskins football team is the biggest of the deals, industry experts said.

"It's normally not popular, but that fades," Narcise said. "Fans are used to looking at advertisements. There've been outfield signs in major league baseball since the turn of the century. Teams need ways to pay their bills."

Consultants said Oriole Park's popularity could bring it at least as much as the Ravens received in their deal with PSINet -- $105.5 million over 20 years. The deal also included sports marketing agreements that take advantage of the tech-related business of the computer services company.

Dean Bonham, chairman of The Bonham Group, which also negotiates stadium naming rights deals, said an Oriole Park deal would also likely include other facets. It could also become baseball's high water mark in naming rights because of the park's strong drawing power and because deals in general are growing in value.

Bonham said there are 57 corporate deals in major league stadiums and arenas with a combined contract value of about $2.6 billion. That compares to 1988, when there were three deals valued at $25 million. He said in the next 10 to 15 years another 20 to 30 sports facilities are expected and nearly all will have corporate names.

The consultants and other sources familiar with the Orioles' organization said the team would first look for a local or regional company that fans already know.

The park would likely have several suitors. Baltimore-Washington is among the nation's larger markets and the park is well known. And with 81 home games a season, far more than other professional sports, a corporate sponsor would get a lot of exposure.

The park regularly comes close to its 48,876 seat capacity and has one of the highest attendance records in baseball.

The experts speculated that energy and telecommunications companies facing newly competitive environments would be most interested in a deal. Bonham said financial services, airlines, telecommunications, beer and computer companies have bought the most names.

Still, the consultants said the emotional attachment of the Oriole Park name would be tough to overcome, and reduce the value to the company that signs on. Some weren't convinced the team would change the name, which was reached after much deliberation. Then-Governor William Donald Schaefer wanted to invoke the site's railroad history and name it "Camden Yards." Then-Orioles owner Eli Jacobs wanted "Oriole Park."

About a dozen fans said after Sunday's game that they would be disappointed if the name changed, although few said they'd be surprised. None said they'd stop coming to the park.

"Corporate sponsorships are as much a part of major league ball as peanuts and popcorn," said 32-year-old Mike Barb of Baltimore. "It shouldn't be that way, but it is."

Staff writer Jon Morgan contributed to this article.

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