What's in a name?


WHEN IT COMES to sports facilities, the answer to that question has been dollars, dollars and more dollars ever since 1973. That's when the Buffalo Bills sold the name of their stadium to Rich Food Products for $1.25 million, a 25-year agreement considered chump change these days. The deal ushered in a new era in sports marketing. In the billion-dollar industry of today, naming a stadium for a reason other than profit is considered a financial no-no.

The owners of the Baltimore Ravens could change that notion. Art Modell and his family could stand up and strike a note for honor, for respect, for enduring talent.

They could follow the wishes of more than 50,000 fans and rename the Ravens' home field for the late, great Colts quarterback, Johnny Unitas, revered not only for his competitiveness but also for his generosity of spirit.

The bottom line is that the Ravens can afford this gesture.

Fortune has rated the Baltimore team the fifth most valuable franchise in the NFL. The team's projected revenues for this year are $137 million. The Ravens recently rewarded their star linebacker with a $19 million signing bonus. And let's not forget the public investment in the stadium: $200 million for construction, a portion of the $100 million spent on land for the football site and Oriole Park -- and that doesn't include road, mass transit and other improvements.

When the Ravens sold the naming rights to the stadium in 1999 to a Virginia internet company, the team cut a deal for a whopping $105.5 million over 20 years. The result was a confusing, oft-mispronounced stadium moniker that stood for nothing but the boom-boom, high-speed pace of cyber commerce. In the first few months of the deal, the Ravens recouped the $10 million they had to pay the state for the right to sell the name and then some. When PSINet Inc. tanked this spring, the Modells had to buy out the remaining agreements for $5.9 million. Based on previous years, the team ledger is probably ahead on that item.

The Ravens are looking for a new corporate sponsor. They haven't yet commented on the petition drive to rename the stadium after Johnny U., citing the inappropriateness of talking about a financial issue so soon after his death. And, of course, the big money is tempting: the Houston Astros recently agreed to a $170 million, 28-year deal to have its home named for the Minute Maid Co.

The Ravens football team has a world championship under its belt. How fitting it would be to have a world-class name on the stadium as well.

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