Olympia should move slow in selling naming rights

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OLYMPIA — Sorry, Robert Pattison.

History is fine and all, but it didn’t pay the bills for Philadelphia’s subway system. So the transit agency accepted AT&T’s offer to rename Pattison station, which serves the city’s big sports stadiums.

In exchange, the struggling agency will get $3.4 million over four years and the long-dead former governor of Pennsylvania will have to be remembered by the surface street above, at least until that’s sold too.

While such government naming rights deals are still rare – at least outside the arena of, well, arenas – it is beginning to become a bit more common.

In Olympia, cash-strapped lawmakers continue to look at two bills to sell branding rights to such entities as the Narrows bridges, highways and prominent buildings.

(Remember: All references to the potential sale of naming rights by a government entity must be preceded by the phrase “cash-strapped” or some variant thereof – see “struggling,” “cash-poor” and “flat broke.”)

The last time I wrote about House Bills 1050 and 1051, it was to dismiss the idea of selling public things to private companies. When Thomas Wills wrote to say he had some expertise in the subject, I hoped he would agree that it was an unrealistic dream by cash-strapped (see above) politicians.

He did agree. And then he didn’t agree. That is, the time may not be now, but the time is probably coming. And Wills knows what he is talking about, making up half of one of the world’s big naming-rights consultants – Bonham/Wills & Associates of Vancouver, B.C.. Dean Bonham helped broker the deal that led to Qwest and later Century Link Field in Seattle.

“At the moment, corporations are reluctant,” Wills said of interest in sponsoring facilities other than sports venues. “I think there’s pushback from the public.” Why the pushback? Taxpayers view it as selling out.

“It just seems like blatant advertising. The public just doesn’t see the benefit,” Wills said. “The last thing (companies) want is to spend marketing money to gain negative impressions.”

So he suggests governments do the work ahead of time to know the value of their offerings and then work with a potential sponsor on a deal that gives a clear public benefit.

When Chicago was building Millennium Park, it sold the name “BP Bridge” in order to finish the Frank Gehry-designed pedestrian bridge. Without the $6 million from the big oil company, the bridge would not exist .

So, simply renaming existing facilities paid for by the public might not be very well accepted? Wills said if some additional benefit is given the public, and some additional benefit provided the sponsor, it might work.

If AT&T paid to brand the Narrows bridge, it might also want to give drivers a discounted toll if they paid with a cellphone on AT&T’s network, Wells proposed. When European cellphone provider O2 became the sponsor of the London concert venue Millennium Dome (what is it with the millennium?), its customers got advance ticket-buying and a reserved section inside.

What about cash-strapped Washington state parks? Despite the apparent success of Reforest California, Wills said, “I think at this point the public won’t be there, so corporations won’t be there.”

If the bills in Olympia should pass and if Wills had the state as a client, what would he advise?

“Take it slow, find the value for the sponsor,” he said. “Don’t jump off the bridge too quickly. I think in five to 10 years down the road, this will be much more commonplace.”

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