June 24th, 2008

Landmark's Name Is up for Sale

By Matthew Futterman
The Wall Street Journal

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum has been the home to the National Football League’s Rams and Raiders, baseball’s Dodgers, college football’s USC Trojans and the 1932 and 1984 Summer Olympics.

Now, the company willing to shell out the most money will be able to stake a claim to the stadium, too. Officials with the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, the public agency that operates the 85-year-old stadium, said Monday they are putting the name of the building on the market in an effort to finance more than $100 million in renovations.

Deals with companies to name sports facilities have become commonplace, yet the name of an iconic stadium—much less one in the second-largest U.S. media market—rarely gets put up for auction.

Boosters Are Bullish

A rich history has made the Coliseum’s boosters bullish. They are predicting a deal valued at $6 million to $8 million a year. Plans call for spending more than $100 million during the next decade to buy a new video board and construct new bathrooms, concession areas and locker rooms at the 92,000-seat stadium.

“People don’t get how valuable these naming rights could be,” said David Israel, chairman of the Coliseum Commission.

The stadium was named for veterans of World War I and is known for its 15 majestic arches at one end of the stadium, the largest of which is 44 feet high and has held the Olympic flame. Carl Lewis first struck gold at the 1984 Olympics at the Coliseum, and Billy Graham preached to more than 134,000 people there in 1963.

The naming rights have cachet, even in an economic slowdown, because the Coliseum is home field to one of the country’s perennial college football powers and is the main outdoor venue in Los Angeles, said Jeff Knapple, principal of Los Angeles sports-and-entertainment company Wasserman Media Group and the man charged with selling the Coliseum’s name.

The University of Southern California is one of the biggest football draws in the nation. Tickets regularly sell out, and USC’s teams have turned out NFL stars such as Reggie Bush of the New Orleans Saints and Carson Palmer of the Cincinnati Bengals. The Trojans won national championships in 2003 and 2004, and Head Coach Pete Carroll’s teams have produced 30 first-team All-Americans and had three Heisman Trophy winners in one four-year span.

The commission also is hoping to benefit from the NCAA’s looser policy toward corporate signage on the field than rules for the NFL: The logo and name can be painted on the grass, though not on the field of play.

But Mr. Knapple has his work cut out for him. Naming-rights deals for college football stadiums are rare and have yet to fetch more than $2 million a year. Beginning next year, TCF Bank will pay the University of Minnesota $35 million to put its name on the school’s football stadium for 25 years. Bright House Networks is paying the University of Central Florida $15 million for the naming rights to Bright House Stadium for 15 years.

What’s more, selling the name of an existing building is more difficult than one under construction.

“A company has to think hard about whether people are just going to call the stadium what they have been calling it for years,” said T.J. Nelligan, principal of Nelligan Sports Marketing, a sports marketing firm based in New Jersey.

Question of NFL’s Return

The start of the naming-rights process also means a likely end to the prospects of the NFL’s returning to the Coliseum. Since the Raiders left Los Angeles in 1994, the NFL has repeatedly flirted with returning a team to the region and to the Coliseum itself, at least temporarily until a new stadium could be built. The prospect of a naming-rights deal could have helped lure a new pro team.

But the Coliseum Commission’s Mr. Israel said those talks have been dead since 2006, at which time the Coliseum Commission focused on signing a long-term lease with USC. Last month, the two sides signed a 25-year lease giving the Coliseum Commission 8% of USC’s ticket sales—about $1.5 million a year—but commits the agency to a list of renovations.

With voters in California against public funding for sports stadiums, commission leaders said naming rights became the only way to pay for the projects.

“We needed a bigger boost,” said Pat Lynch, the stadium’s general manager. “When the naming-rights deal comes, we’ll have the money we need.”

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