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New Era, Carrier Dome naming rights deals came at a price

When it was announced in the late 1970s that Syracuse University would be building a 50,000-seat domed stadium on campus, a bunch of us idealistic twenty-somethings advocated that our alma mater’s new sports playpen be named after Ernie Davis. Not only did the Davis Dome have a cool, alliterative ring to it, but the name would have been a fitting tribute to the courageous man who died of leukemia at age 23 in 1963, just two years after becoming the first African American to win the Heisman Trophy.

Alas, our movement didn’t travel very far. We wound up being tackled far short of the goal line by Mel Holm, a captain of industry who ponied up $2.75 million to have the white, bubble-roofed edifice named after the company he headed: the Carrier Corporation.

The Carrier Dome rolled off the tongue a lot better than many of the other cumbersome corporate stadium names that would follow. And the deal Holm struck for the world’s largest manufacturer of air conditioners was money well spent for his company as the Dome received thousands of hours of national television exposure and became one of the most iconic buildings in college sports.

The contract called for the naming rights to be “in perpetuity,” a fancy-schmancy, legal way of saying “forever.” It seemed a good deal for SU at the time, as the school used the money to pay off construction costs. But over time, it became a bad deal for the university. And as Syracuse contemplates a quarter-billion dollar Dome renovation, it looks for ways to extricate itself from the Carrier contract.

Shakespeare once asked, “What’s in a name?” As we’ve since discovered, the answer can be lots and lots of money when it comes to stadium and arena naming rights.

Colorado State University—not exactly Alabama, Ohio State or Notre Dame when it comes to storied college football programs—recently signed a deal with Public Service Credit Union for $37.7 million over 15 years. That’s $2.5 million per year, almost as much as the entire Carrier Corporation/SU deal. Divide the Dome contract by 38 years and it averages $72,368 per year.

Interestingly, the stadium naming rights trend in major professional sports can be traced to the agreement Rich Products reached with the Buffalo Bills in 1973. The Bills were moving from old War Memorial Stadium—the concrete bowl known affectionately and derisively as the Rockpile—to a new state-of-the-art stadium in the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park. Bob Rich Sr., the founder of Rich Products, a Buffalo-based, multinational food product company, saw a plum marketing opportunity by partnering with a franchise in the rapidly growing National Football League and struck a deal with Bills owner Ralph Wilson for $1.5 million over 25 years.

After the contract’s expiration, the building would be known as Buffalo Bills Stadium and then Ralph Wilson Stadium, or the Ralph, until new team owners Terry and Kim Pegula inked a deal with New Era Cap Company following Wilson’s death. The current contract calls for the Western New York cap and sports apparel company to pay the Bills roughly $5.7 million per year through 2022, the final year of the team’s stadium lease with Erie County. The Bills are expected to build a new stadium in downtown Buffalo at that time, and the naming rights deal is sure to attract an even bigger windfall.

Not surprisingly, the Bills current deal is chump change compared to their big-market brethren. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones rakes in $19 million a year from AT&T, while the New York Giants owners are making almost as much from their deal with MetLife. At last count, only 16 of the 122 teams in the major North American sports leagues play in facilities without a corporate name.

And you have to wonder if it’s only a matter of time before Yankee Stadium, Lambeau Field, Fenway Park, Dodger Stadium, Madison Square Garden and Wrigley Field undergo name changes.

We’ve been fortunate in Rochester with our baseball parks. Yes, Frontier Field is named after Frontier Communications, the phone and internet provider. But it’s catchy, and has extra meaning because when it opened in 1997 it signaled the exploration of a new frontier in our community’s baseball journey. Before that, we had Silver Stadium, named after Morrie Silver, the man who spearheaded the shareholder drive to save professional baseball in Rochester in the late-1950s. And before that, the venerable ballpark at 500 Norton St. was known as Red Wing Stadium.

Contrast that with Buffalo’s minor league park, which has had five names (Pilot Field, “the Downtown Ballpark,” North AmeriCare Park, Dunn Tire Park and Coca-Cola Field) in its 30-year history, and Syracuse’s minor-league park, which has had three names (P&C Stadium, Alliance Bank Stadium and currently NBT Stadium) in its 21-year history.

The Buffalo Bisons contract with Coca-Cola will not be renewed following this season, and The Buffalo News columnist Sean Kirst has proposed renaming the ballpark after Luke Easter, the folk hero slugger whose number has been retired by both the Bisons and Red Wings. I think it’s a marvelous idea. But I also thought naming the Dome after Ernie Davis was a bright idea, too. What I’ve come to realize is that the corporate and donor dollars gleaned from naming rights at the professional and college levels can be offers too good to refuse.

It would be wonderful if several deep-pocketed alumni could foot the bill for the Dome’s renovations and decree it be renamed for Davis, the late college football legend. I don’t see that happening, so we’ll have to settle for the on-campus statues, as well as the dormitory and Dome field named in his honor. And hope that the refurbished stadium’s new name isn’t a tongue-twister.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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