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When Corporate Naming Goes Bad

By Michael Spatz -- November 13, 2012 9:06 PM EST

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What's in a name?

If we're talking the name of a stadium, it could be millions of dollars a year.

In the book "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk, the narrator states that when space exploration ramps up, corporations will be naming everything, from the "Microsoft Galaxy" to "Planet Starbucks." We certainly haven't reached that point yet in our society, but corporations have been increasingly naming another place that people gather: sporting arenas.

From Petco Park in San Diego to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, corporations continue to buy naming rights to sports venues across all sports. It means great publicity for the company and great profit for the sports team, but what happens when the company or organization that a stadium is named after goes downhill?

While most companies have to pay to have their namesake on a stadium, Sporting Kansas City of Major League Soccer agreed to a partnership with the Livestrong Foundation, founded by Lance Armstrong, in March of 2011. The partnership included naming rights to the new stadium, now Livestrong Sporting Park, and a donation from the club to the foundation that would be no less than $7.5 million dollars over a six-year period. At the time, it seemed like a great deal. While the venue is the third-smallest in the league, it has since gotten recognition, awards, and hosted several highly publicized international matches, including a men's World Cup qualifier between the United States and Guatemala in October. This past season, Sporting Kansas City finished first in the East and attendance rose 8.95%.

In August 2012, however, the United States Anti-Doping Agency stripped Armstrong of all competitive results from 1998 until present. In the months that followed, Armstrong was banned for life and his record seven Tour de France wins were vacated, all based on the comprehensive findings that Armstrong had doped and used various performance enhancing drugs while he competed. In a couple of months, Armstrong went from an American hero to an American villain. On November 12, Armstrong resigned from his board position at Livestrong Foundation, the charity he founded fifteen years before.

As Armstrong's public image deteriorated, so perhaps did Livestrong's. Suddenly, the founder of the charity foundation was a cheat and as a result, the Livestrong image changed. And while Armstrong may no longer be presently connected with the charity, he did found it and was the engine and focal point behind it. Some say it may take years for people to recognize the Livestrong Foundation as something other than Armstrong's.

So what does all of this have to do with a stadium? It brings up the question of what Sporting Kansas City may do with the name of its venue, Livestrong Sporting Park. In late August, Sporting KC chief executive Robb Heinema stated that would not consider renaming the stadium, but that was before all of the allegations of what Armstrong had done came to light. Now with the Sporting KC season over, the conversation has arisen again.

This is nowhere near the first time this kind of situation has happened. In 2002, the Houston Astros faced a publicity nightmare with their home Enron Field when the company that had the naming rights filed for bankruptcy in what ended up as one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history. The stadium was briefly changed to Astros Field before becoming Minute Maid Park less than a year later. In 1999, the new Tennessee Titans stadium was named Adelphia Coliseum...until Adelphia Communications filed for bankruptcy in 2002. The venue quickly became The Coliseum, before being renamed LP Field in 2006.

And what about when stadiums get names that the fans just don't like? Since 1892, St James' Park is where Newcastle United has played football and established itself as one of England's premier teams. In November 2011, however, the club changed the venue's name to Sports Direct Arena. The backlash from the Newcastle faithful was so great that the club reverted back to the old name of St James' Park the following October.

So I ask again, what's in a name? Sports are a game, but it's also a business. Places like the Allen Fieldhouse, Yankee Stadium, and Soldier Field should never change. However, if going to a ballgame in California means I could end up at the O.co Coliseum or AT&T Park, I can deal with that. The name doesn't define the stadium; the atmosphere does. I don't think that Sporting Kansas City should change their sponsor. The Livestrong Foundation will hopefully end up being bigger than just Lance Armstrong. It's a very worthy cause, and even though the founder has been shamed, the foundation, providing support to the countless people fighting cancer, should not be.

Plus, the fact remains that you never know what you'll get with naming rights, and you don't want this up and coming soccer field as another Dix Stadium (sorry, Kent State).

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