Stadium Naming Fumbles and Fouls


Sad State of Stadium NamingIf you are a sports fan, or have ever lived with one, you know that true fans don’t just know their players’ names, numbers, and stats. They live and die with them every season. But, as arena-naming rights continue to sell to the highest bidder—however ludicrous the result—fans are losing their connection to what once felt like hallowed ground.

To wit, this year’s Super Bowl will be held in Houston’s NRG Stadium, previously known as Reliant Stadium, part of the sports complex formerly known as the Astrodome. (“Astrodome”… how cool was that?)

And that’s one of the more straightforward naming stories. The tortured history of Catchword’s hometown Oakland Coliseum, where the A’s and Raiders play, is more typical. Naming rights first went to UMAX Technologies in 1997, but a court dispute quickly reverted the name to the original. In 1998, the venue became Network Associates Coliseum, which through acquisition in 2003 became McAfee ColiseumMcAfee Coliseum. In 2008, the name reverted to Oakland Coliseum before becoming Coliseum in 2011… and then Coliseum when rebranded. (At least worked nicely with Coliseumboth and Oakland Coliseum). Finally this past year, the name reverted once more to Oakland Coliseum.

(In case you got lost in all those changes, it was Oakland Coliseum > UMAX Technologies > Oakland Coliseum > Network Associates Coliseum > McAfee Coliseum > BACK to Oakland Coliseum > Coliseum > Coliseum > and finally back to Oakland Coliseum again!)

Can you imagine how customers would react to Coca-Cola or Google changing their names that frequently or that arbitrarily? Great marketers know that consistency, appropriateness, and emotional engagement are among the factors critical to brand success (see Catchword’s 10 Naming Criteria).

Fan faith is tested when the field they love doesn’t return that loyalty. In contrast, a consistent home-field experience across generations can engender legendary fan support. Consider the Green Bay Packers, whose home has always been called Lambeau Field, memorializing a former coach. Players even do the famous “Lambeau Leap” after they score.

Enron stadium naming failStadium naming rights were not always for sale. The move from geographic and historic references to corporate names has grown exponentially since the mid-90s, provoking frequent anger and derision, not to mention embarrassing brand bloopers (Enron Field, anyone?). AT&T Park went through so many changes—as communications companies consolidated—that fans referred to it as “The Telephone Booth.” The White Sox’s home’s 2016 switch from U.S. Cellular Field to Guaranteed Rate Field was widely lampooned, in part because of the prominence of the downward-pointing arrow in the mortgage company’s logo. It’s hard to imagine more of a downer than that to often superstitious fans and players alike.

Some Sad State of Stadium Namingof the more suitable corporate stadium names have come from beverage companies. Coors Field is home to the Colorado Rockies. The Milwaukee Brewers play in Miller Park—the best fit in MLB. The Tampa Bay Rays play at Tropicana Field. But then there’s Smoothie King Center, home to the New Orleans Pelicans, and Minute Maid Park, where the Houston Astros play.

Peculiar, mediocre, and uninspiring stadium names Sleep Train Arenaabound. The Phoenix Suns play in Talking Stick Resort Arena (formerly America West Arena, then US Airways Center). Can you imagine a less energetic name than Sleep Train Arena, where the Sacramento Kings played until last year? The Baltimore Ravens’ field went from PSINet Stadium (PSINet filed for bankruptcy in 2002) to M&T Bank Stadium in 2003. There’s EverBank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Safeco Field is home to the Seattle Mariners. For the Minnesota Vikings, it’s the U.S. Bank Stadium.

Frankly, selling the name of a team’s home to the highest bidder, with no consideration for anything else, makes a mockery of fan loyalty. These names are cynical, detached from team, sport, city … humanity. Every encounter with a silly or soulless Sad state of stadium namingname like Little Caesars Arena deepens the crack in the happy illusion that sports leagues share fan values. And for non-fans, these revolving-door stadium names only reinforce the narrative of fat cat owners and overpaid athletes.

Most fans know on some level that pro sports are big business, but they expect decisions to be guided by love for the game and respect for the fans as well as profit. A stadium whose name honors team and city is a venerable local institution, a place where people gather to celebrate athletic excellence, a living memorial to the history of the team, the city, the game.

Realistically, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle on selling names rights – this source of income has become too valuable. But the team brand (and the city’s and the sponsor’s) is even more valuable. How can we strike the right balance, so sports venues can be a source of pride for the whole community? They must think long-term, well beyond the immediate bump from a sponsorship.

Here are seven dos and don’ts for stadium naming (and yes, this means rejecting higher offers that don’t meet the criteria):

1. Imagine how fans and media will use the name in conversation. Will they shorten or abbreviate it? Will they stumble over it? (er PSINet Field).

2. Consider how the stadium name pairs with your team’s name. For instance, it would be a pretty big disconnect to find the Bears playing in the Amazon.

3. Consider the volatility of the sponsor’s business and sector (adios Enron and Sports Authority).

4. Veto names with any whiff of silliness (looking at you, Smoothie King).

5. Avoid acronyms or letter soup. These names mean nothing, are utterly forgettable, and have no emotional pull (a la PNC Park).

6. Avoid names or logos that are contrary to sporting excellence (wake up, Sleep Train!).

7. Last but not least, incorporate the history of the park into the branded name. For example, Denver’s Sports Authority Field at Mile High retains some heritage while prominently featuring the sponsor (that in this case went bankrupt – oops!). Or how about Willie Mays Park by AT&T? Mandate such a formula in the team’s bylaws. The sponsor component may change, but the rest of the name will consistently express the brand’s connection to the city, the team, the fans, and the game.

Willie Mays ParkHere’s hoping that 2017 heralds a new era of stadium naming that celebrates park history and the fans who fuel the game.












If you are a sports fan, or have ever lived with one, you know that true fans don’t just know their players’ names, numbers, and stats. They live and die with them every season. But, as arena-naming rights continue to sell to the highest bidder—however ludicrous the result—fans are losing their connection to what once felt like hallowed ground.