When Names Are Bought and Sold

Sgt. Cody C. Baker, a logistics specialist in the Marine Corps, took a cue from the Big Boys and decided he could make some easy money by auctioning off naming rights for himself. He launched a website, ChooseMyName.com, and invited bidders to buy the right to rename him. An online company, FreebeeStore.com, offered him $30,000.01 to rename himself “FreebeeStore.com.” Another online company, the second-highest bidder, offered $26,333.31 for Baker to rename himself “Sgt. Finest Freshest Fastest.”

Baker’s website is the newest frontier in a trend that started nearly twenty years ago — the selling of names to the highest bidder, usually for sports arenas. In 1988, there were only three naming rights deals in the country, which together were worth $25 million. Two years ago there were 66 naming-rights deals estimated to be worth $3.6 billion. This sum represents the approximate cash value of dispossessing fans and communities of significant chunks of their identity. It’s the “market value” of a major cultural commons, previously considered our shared social life.

While some people regard ChooseMyName.com as a cute publicity stunt and the corporate naming of stadiums as an unpleasant but inevitable fact of life, I think there’s an insidious cultural violence going on here. Names are an intrinsic part of one’s identity. What happens when identities are bought and sold like commodities?

That is, in fact, the presumption of the corporations who buy naming rights. They believe that reputation can be created or erased by paying millions of dollars. Actual deeds or history or social regard don’t really matter. Just show me the money, and you can buy yourself a cultural landmark or the prized totems of a fan community. You can buy high-visibility TV exposure for your logo — behind home plate; on top of the dugout — and you can wrap yourself in the populist credibility of baseball (an image that, frankly, is getting harder and harder to sustain as the great American pastime is converted into a marketing free-fire zone).

The names of civic arenas used to say something about a city’s history and collective memory. The name was a shared focal point for generations of fans. It radiated rich layers of meaning that accumulated from years of family outings and rooting for the home team. At one time people knew the cities and teams associated with The Boston Garden, Ebbets Field and Candlestick Park.

But now corporations who have no serious loyalties except the bottom line are commoditizing local identity and disrupting social continuity. By naming the local arenas for themselves — Reliant Stadium, FedEx Field, the Philips Arena, Petco Park — they aim to convert the social life of sports into monetized brand equity. (This dynamic is also at work these days in the online world of social networking.) Nowadays, a stadium name does not conjure up a storied past, but rather signifies a city’s subservience to the latest corporate overlord.

The problem with converting stadium names into fungible property rights is that they can — and frequently are — sold. It’s as if the community history and memory were symbolically erased whenever a corporate sponsor goes bankrupt or suffers a scandal. Recently, after Delta Airlines went bankrupt, it sold its naming-rights to the Delta Center — home of the Utah Jazz basketball team — to a hazardous waste company, EnergySolutions. Many people in Utah are not happy that one of the most prominent public spaces in Utah is now named after a company that reprocesses nuclear fuel. he state’s tourism promotion board, which promotes the state’s pristine outdoor life, is not thrilled either.

Local wags are joking that the arena should be called HazzMat Center, Half-Life Arena, Radium Stadium or the Tox Box. It doesn’t help that the waste facility was built in the Utah desert after a state official accepted bribes from the founder of the EnergySolutions’ corporate predecessor, Envirocare. (See NYT, December 11, 2006; behind paywall.) Buying the stadium name appears to be a corporate gambit to shed a negative reputation by purchasing a popular and wholesome sports image.

The churning of public identity and image is a normal business practice in the naming-rights world. Minute Maid bought the rights to Enron Field after Enron collapsed in a cloud of scandal. M&T Bank bought PsiNet Stadium in Baltimore after PsiNet went bankrupt. When SBC Communications decided to rename all of its corporate divisions, it became necessary to rename Pacific Bell Park in San Francisco SBC Park.

I’m wondering when fans will begin to wake up and protest the cynical abuse of their fan loyalty. After all, the only reason that stadium names have a cash value is because the fans collectively follow the local team and consent to the re-naming. What if the fans of a major team decided that it wanted to own the brand equity of its team itself, much as the fans of the Green Bay Packers literally own shares in the team? (While the NFL accepts this novel arrangement, it has “grandfathered” community ownership of a team so that all other teams must be privately owned.) Why not an “open source” sports team to belongs to everyone?

But back to Sgt. Baker. He was ultimately forced to call off his personal naming-rights auction because the Marines told him that federal law prohibits military personnel from making commercial endorsements. Sgt. Baker ruefully noted, “My mom, not being very business minded, didn’t really see the value in changing my name. She said she would be praying for me.”

Ah, but the “entrepreneurial ethic” lives on. Baker handed his website over to a friend, Scott McDonald, who is auctioning off his legal name. At the moment, the highest bid is $36,789.10 for Scott to be re-named “Finest Freshest Fastest.”

Where will it all lead? Filmmaker Steven Soderburgh was surely inspired by such developments when he embarked upon a new film, “Jennifer Government,” due out in 2008. The film depicts a world run by American corporations (except for a few deluded holdouts like the French), taxes are illegal, and employees take the last names of the companies they work for.

Do naming-rights represent the limits of the market order, or just the warm-up for the future?