Is name game lost?

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As the major league baseball season begins this week, the Houston Astros are still looking for someone to replace bankrupt energy company Enron Corp. as the naming-rights holder to its stadium. The naming-rights business in professional sports, which hit a peak in the late 1990s, isn't as robust as it used to be.

"The doom has occurred," said Brandon Steiner, of Steiner Sports Marketing, Larchmont, N.Y. "The hits, like Enron's bankruptcy, take away from the franchise and the value. In essence, teams are starting to realize that they're sharing their name with a company they really don't know the depth and the future of."

While marketers still see the value of having their name associated with a facility, and teams still reap the financial benefit of such a relationship, more and more naming rights seem to be a dubious proposition on both sides.

"Make no mistake, the naming-rights industry will survive. It's one of the best propositions in the business of sports in terms of delivering value to both sides," said Dean Bonham, president of Denver-based Bonham Group, a sports marketing firm specializing in naming rights deals. "Having said that, we're going to see a leveling off of costs."

Go 'stros!

The Astros, who cut a 30-year, $100 million deal with Enron in 2000 to put the company's name on the stadium, earlier this month paid Enron $2.1 million to buy back the naming rights. The facility is now known as Astros Field, that is, until a new corporate sponsor can be found, and it shouldn't be long before that happens. Several major corporations have a presence in the city, including oil giant Conoco, which is already a major sponsor at the ballpark.

But the Enron debacle wasn't the first naming rights deal to go south.

In 1999, the Baltimore Ravens struck a then-record 20-year, $105.5 million stadium naming rights deal with the Internet firm PSINet. The company was bankrupt two years later and, two weeks ago, the Ravens bought back the naming rights from PSINet for $5.9 million.

"There has been an epic change in the naming rights business," said Harry "Hamp" Howell, president of Cleveland-based Sports Facilities Marketing Group. "Look, there's two facilities in Philadelphia trying to sell naming rights, the Superdome [in New Orleans] is trying to peddle naming rights and there's a new football stadium in Seattle. None of these deals have been consummated. That says something."

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