Stadiums Across America Are Empty, So What Happens to Those Naming Rights Deals?

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Two months ago, amid the virtually uninterrupted stream of lugubrious news about Covid-19 deaths, unemployment and civil unrest, a brighter bit of news popped up in Seattle. The old Seattle Center Coliseum—a 13,000 seat arena built in 1962 for the Seattle World’s Fair and currently undergoing a $900 million renovation—would be getting a new name.

When it reopens next summer, the home of Seattle’s NHL expansion team, the Kraken, will be called the Climate Pledge Arena, the first net-zero carbon venue on Earth. And while the brand name Amazon won’t be over the front doors, the name’s origin—the $2 billion Climate Pledge initiative that Jeff Bezos established in 2019—is well known, especially in Seattle, where some 54,000 residents work for the online colossus.

“Instead of calling it Amazon Arena,” Bezos explained on Instagram, “we’re naming it Climate Pledge Arena as a regular reminder of the urgent need for climate action.”

A zero-carbon venue, the Seattle arena will take its name from the Climate Pledge Initiative instead of being called Amazon Arena.Amazon

The terms of the naming rights weren’t disclosed, but with the Amazon founder’s personal worth hovering around $189 billion, Bezos could easily have dug into his sofa cushions for the money to pay for it.

The Climate Pledge naming deal wasn’t an aberration, either. Three weeks ago, Swiss investment banking giant UBS committed a reported $350 million over 20 years to put its name on the New York Islanders’ new hockey arena currently under construction in Nassau County. The UBS name and logo will appear on center ice, on the facade and even on the roof. In a statement, UBS Americas president Tom Naratil said the stadium would be part of the brand’s “commitment to growing our presence in the U.S.” and “having a positive and lasting impact on the surrounding community.”

The suspension of live events did not dissuade UBS from going ahead with its deal for the new Islanders arena.UBS Arena

In normal times, deals like this would barely warrant more than a passing notice. Companies have been sticking their names on ballparks since chewing gum mogul William Wrigley hung his brand’s name on Chicago’s Wrigley Field in 1925.

But these are not normal times. Not only will Covid-19 cost the economy an estimated $7.9 trillion over the coming decade, but large public venues of every stripe are shuttered. Some health professionals say it won’t be safe to attend arena events until there’s a vaccine for the virus. But most experimental vaccines have not even reached the human trial phase of testing yet, and experts venture that mid-2021 is the earliest we’ll get one.

This timeline raises a weighty question for sports teams and the companies that sponsor them. If stadiums don’t have a single fan in the seats these days, what are all of those multimillion-dollar naming rights deals worth? Is this the end of an era for the high-profile name slapping that brought us Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium, Hartford, Conn.’s Dunkin’ Donuts Park and Peoples Natural Gas Field in Altoona, Pa.?

“As an investment spent toward getting eyeballs—it’s a valid concern,” said veteran marketing adviser Mario Natarelli, managing partner of MBLM. “They’re losing impressions and top-of-mind awareness and recall for sure.”

Empty seats, tough times

It’s not difficult to see why. The 10 largest stadiums in the United States have a combined capacity of well over 1 million people. And with every canceled game or rock concert, that’s a million fewer people who’ll be seeing a sponsoring brand’s name on their ticket, above the front doors and on the signage inside. The brands that signed naming rights deals paid for the eyeballs of those fans—fans who are now at home mowing the lawn.

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