RFK Stadium naming deal near

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ProFund Advisors LLC, a Bethesda investment firm whose logo features the bull and the bear may soon adopt the Washington Nationals' mascot, the eagle, as well.

The firm, which specializes in risky mutual funds for sophisticated investors, is close to a deal with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission for the rights to put its name on the Nationals' temporary home, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, until a new stadium opens in 2008. At that point, the Nationals would choose a name.

Commission spokesman Tony Robinson wouldn't say how much ProFund would pay, and officials with the firm declined to comment.

"We've been trading numbers," Robinson said. "A final agreement is fairly imminent, but we can't say for sure until the ink is dry."

ProFund would be the latest in a long line of investment and banking companies to pay big for sports-venue naming rights. Other firms include Denver-based Invesco at the Bronco's Mile High football field; Ameriquest Mortgage Co. at the Texas Rangers' ballpark; TD Banknorth Inc. at the arena for Boston Celtics basketball and Bruins hockey; Edward Jones at the dome where the St. Louis Rams play; and M&T; Bank Corp. at the Baltimore Ravens stadium.

ProFund became the only contender for the naming rights at RFK when a potential deal with the National Guard fell through after Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, questioned whether it would be an appropriate use of taxpayer money at a time of war.

The Bethesda firm is a comparatively small financial services outfit with a small niche - offering clients a range of funds they can use to track the daily performance of a stock index or bond, to hedge a portfolio, or to make a bet on a specific industry.

ProFund requires a minimum investment of $5,000 for accounts controlled by financial professionals and $15,000 for self-directed accounts. Fund shares are also sold through brokerages.

The prospect of ProFund's name on RFK has left some people wondering why such a company would want to target the beer-drinking, hot dog-eating baseball crowd - and only for a few years.

"Will it convince a financial adviser to go with them because they went to a baseball game?" said Dan Sondhelm of SunStar Inc., Alexandria, Va.-based marketing consultants for mutual fund firms. "Maybe at the stadium they'll have an investing room that fans can go to during the seventh-inning stretch."

The answer may be that ProFund knows how much baseball fans earn these days. About half of Baltimore-area residents who attend Orioles games had an annual household income of more than $75,000, according to a survey by Scarborough Research, which tracks the demographics of consumers. The survey was conducted in 2003 and 2004, when the O's were the only major-league ball club in the area.

The median household income in D.C. and Maryland is $45,000 to $52,300, the latest U.S. Census data show.

"People who go to baseball games tend to be a little bit older and very affluent, and they probably have the means to invest with this company," said Dennis Howard, a professor at the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center.

ProFund was founded in 1997 to "take index investing - matching the returns of a benchmark - and evolve it," according to its Web site. The firm, which manages $6 billion in assets and has more than 40 funds, doesn't limit the size or frequency of trades. Its funds are designed to appeal to "active" investors who move in an out of funds to take advantage of market swings.

Returns in some of ProFund's offerings can fluctuate wildly. Its UltraSector fund in basic materials, or chemicals, paper products and steel, posted a gain of 35 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003 and a loss of 34 percent in the third quarter the year before.

"Market timing has gotten a bad name because all of these people did it at mutual fund firms and they did it illegally," said Tucker Hewes, an outside public-relations representative for ProFund, referring to allegations that some firms allowed unlawful timing that benefited select investors and wasn't disclosed to all investors. "Market timing is perfectly legal. In fact, you do it when you change your retirement account to go to a more conservative fund."

Hewes declined to comment on ProFund's reason for wanting to put its name on RFK. Other marketing professionals said a short-term deal would be cheaper than most naming contracts that last decades, though the "brand awareness" would be short-lived. ProFunds could also benefit from the opportunities to schmooze clients.

"These deals are great for relationship building," said Andrew D. Appleby, president of General Sports and Entertainment, a marketing firm in Michigan. "Companies can use the stadium for employee and client gatherings. They get a full complement of suites and seats to be able to take their business to another level."

Baseball fans have complained for years that the sport is becoming gentrified. Ticket prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation in recent years, and luxury boxes and expensive club seats have taken the place of bleachers.

According to the Team Marketing Report, the average "fan cost index" for a family of four to attend a baseball game is $164.43. That's the price of two adult and two child tickets, soft drinks, beer, hot dogs, programs, parking and a couple of baseball caps.

Naming-rights deals have proliferated in the last three decades as teams and sporting commissioners scramble for new revenue to pay skyrocketing salaries for athletes and to fund the replacement of older stadiums with ever-more-snazzy, state-of-the-art arenas. More than 80 teams in the four major leagues of baseball, football, basketball and hockey play in venues with a corporate name. The deals range from less than $1 million to $10 million a year.

"We have to be a little more clear-eyed about it. This is just a different source of money," said Michael Leeds, a professor at Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management.

Nostalgia for the old days of baseball - when stadiums were named for their locations or a team's owner - has stoked opposition to naming-rights deals.

When the city of San Francisco sold the naming rights for Candlestick Park to tech firm 3Com Corp. in 1995, Bay Area fans protested. Some local media refused to call it 3Com Park in a show of loyalty to "The Stick." That deal expired in 2002, and the 49ers football team now plays in Monster Park, named after Monster Cable Products Inc.

"When you put on these huge mouthfuls that have corporate-sounding names, it takes any kind of romance out of it," said Bob Costas, a sportscaster for NBC and HBO. "It almost puts a neon sign on it that says, 'Everything for sale.'"

The RFK deal isn't expected to rankle the family and friends of Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general and senator who was assassinated in 1968. The D.C. sports commission has approached the Kennedy family with the idea, and they haven't objected, said Robinson, the commission's spokesman.

Lynn Delaney, executive director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial, a charitable group that supports human-rights work, said the commission assured the family that any corporate name would be an add-on, wouldn't replace Kennedy's name, and that revenue from the deal would support local youth programs in his name.

"They are looking for revenue streams wherever they can get it," said Larry DeGaris, the director of the Center for Sports Sponsorship at James Madison University, of sport franchises negotiating such deals. Paying to name a stadium has "become part of the kitsch. It's here to stay."

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