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FOR STADIUMS, THE GAME'S THE DOME NAME;BRANDED ARENAS EVENTS & PROMOTIONS;DOUBLE IN JUST ABOUT A YEAR, AND MARKETERS EAGER TO PLAY

By Published on .

Buy me some peanuts and...plane tickets!

Civic egos have long been closely tied to the success or failure of local sports franchises. Now, a growing list of marketers, from banks to brewers, are cashing in on the hometown team as never before.

Brand-name arenas are one of the hottest trends in events and promotional marketing. With new venues bearing corporate monikers and older ones being rechristened, the number of big-league stadiums in the U.S. and Canada sporting a corporate name has soared from 11 at the end of 1994 to 25 today, including arenas under construction.

The cities, teams and companies involved tout this as a win-win situation for everyone. Modern arenas keep teams in town; team owners get a new revenue stream; and marketers get a chance to closely associate their brands with America's love of sports-as well as treat its good customers to the best seats in the house.

"It is a critical component for us in entertainment," says Betsy Richardson, senior VP-director of corporate marketing for Fleet Bank, which put its name on Boston's brand-new Fleet Center, where the National Basketball Association's Celtics and National Hockey League's Bruins play.

"Building relationships with key customers is a critical and inherent part of financial services," she says.

In addition, Fleet gets national name recognition when events are broadcast. That may not do much for the Massachusetts banking outlet, but it boosts the company's other financial services, Ms. Richardson says.

The amount of national exposure to be gained varies considerably from year to year, depending on the win-loss records of the tenants.

"Our attitude is that sports teams have roller-coaster years," Ms. Richardson says. "This is a long-term commitment."

Even when the Celtics and Bruins are performing poorly, "The Fleet Center is drawing dramatic crowds beyond just sporting events," such as concerts, she adds.

The company declined to disclose how much it is paying for the sponsorship, which it acquired when it swallowed Shawmut Bank. However, the book "Inside the Ownership of Professional Sports Teams" by Alan Friedman, editor of the newsletter , puts the figure at $30 million over 15 years. That amount would make this pact one of the priciest such deals in the country.

Marketing executives at United Airlines got in under that figure. Chicago's United Center, opened in September 1994, is home to the NHL Blackhawks, who are playing well, and the NBA Bulls, who currently are playing at a record-setting pace and feature superstars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.

"The United Center is a unique opportunity to become associated with a facility that was going to become very famous very quickly," says Joe Hopkins, media relations manager for United.

With the Bulls frequently appearing on national TV, the arena sponsorship "gives United very good visibility," Mr. Hopkins says. In addition to all the interior signage, he says, "we will usually get an exterior shot and our name is even on the roof."

The United Center will get a dose of TV exposure this summer when it hosts the Democratic National Convention, for which United is also the official airline, Mr. Hopkins says. He quickly adds that the company has a similar deal with the Republican Party.

The price tag on the sponsorship of United Center is a reported $1.8 million a year.

Still, some sports-marketing observers warn stadium sponsorships have their potential pitfalls.

Characterizing the trend as "a follow-the-leader situation," Mr. Friedman sees these deals as "difficult to quantify, difficult to price and difficult to justify in most cases...

"Pepsi can actually sell product" in its under-construction Denver stadium, he says. However, few of the other pacts "provide much more than name recognition...It is hard to say that deposits have gone up, or airline ticket sales have increased" because of marketers' involvement in stadiums.

Even the name recognition can be tenuous, he adds, since the corporate name "just becomes part of the nomenclature. It's the old Kleenex-Xerox issue, when someone is saying a brand name but not knowing it."

Yet arena backers say sponsorships are intended to strengthen a brand image and not boost short-term sales.

"It was never intended per se to be a revenue-generating intiative as much as it was a brand-positioning and corporate-image initiative," Ms. Richardson says.

Fleet will be able to gauge the positive response of its current customer base through surveys, which she says the bank will conduct in several years.

Another possible sponsorship problem is obsolescence. For example, USAir Arena, the suburban Washington facility once known as the Capital Centre, is about to lose its NBA and NHL tenants to the MCI Center, slated to open next year in downtown D.C.

USAir signed a 10-year contract in 1993, for a reported $10 million, for naming rights. However, they also put it in writing that if the teams go, so does their sponsorship.

David Castelveter, USAir director of PR-marketing, says when the new place opens, "the old arena will no longer be named the USAir Arena." Still, he notes, "We wouldn't have put our name on it if we didn't get value from it."

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