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What’s in a Name? Renegotiating Naming Rights in a Wired World

Growing up in New York, places like Shea Stadium and Madison Square Garden were backdrops for some of the most vivid scenes of my childhood.

In 1973, my father and I cheered in the stands as Rusty Staub hit a three-run homer that led the Mets to victory over the Oakland A’s in Game 4 of the World Series. That same year, we watched Dave DeBusschere and the Knicks upset the Boston Celtics on their way to a second NBA title over the Los Angeles Lakers.

These stadiums housed my first brushes with glory, defeat, unbearable suspense and all-consuming action. As the seventh of eight children in an all but subdued Irish family, the souvenirs and stories they supplied were both prized keepsakes and fuel for bragging.

Today, I peer down at my two daughters in the stands and can’t help but notice how drastically the stadium experience has changed. It’s no longer enough to simply be a spectator. New generations are constantly creating and sharing their own keepsakes through Facebook, Instagram and Vine.

And the industry knows it. With well over a dozen global sports arenas currently under construction, athletic and entertainment facilities around the world are undergoing an overhaul for a new technological era. The big idea? Make every aspect of the fan experience as, if not more, engaging than the action on the field.

As venues evolve quickly, so too does the naming-rights game. In order to thrive on the new frontier, big-ticket sponsors should follow a fresh set of rules.

1. Forget naming rights as you know them

Many sports marketers roll their eyes at naming rights because, while most major stadiums maintain naming-rights partnerships, many still associate them with ineffective albeit expensive signage in an already saturated space.

But Crain’s Chicago Business’ Danny Ecker explains it best:

“Sports naming rights deals have been heavily scrutinized since the recession with corporations forced to justify the benefits of putting their names up in lights. As a result, most new deals involve more than just the name of a building.”

In the age of the tech-driven stadium, naming rights have expanded from large-scale signage to partnerships spanning hospitality to product displays and mobile apps. In many instances, these partnerships also allow sponsors to reach beyond marketing and forge profitable business deals with teams and venues.

Real Madrid maintains a strategic partnership with the International Petroleum Investment Co., for example. Beyond helping finance the team’s stadium revitalization, there is also speculation that IPIC may be the future naming rights partner of the stadium.

No matter what the negotiation, the new naming rights landscape is giving big spenders an unprecedented opportunity to thread their brands into every aspect of stadiums, both in the spotlight and behind the scenes.

2. Enter on the ground floor

More than a dozen teams around the world are breaking ground on new facilities right now.

For sponsorship-savvy brands like SunTrust Bank, that’s big news. The company’s naming rights deal with the Atlanta Braves, an extension of its established business relationship with the team, proves that for high-paying sponsors, getting in on the ground floor is priceless.

By negotiating the partnership during the facility’s design and construction, SunTrust had the opportunity to thread its brand into the very fabric of the stadium. It not only is putting its name on the building (SunTrust Park), it is providing input on designs that are uniquely tailored for showcasing the bank's people, products and services.

In an industry that’s losing face-time with its customers, that’s invaluable. It also would have been unlikely if the deal had been completed after the facility design was solidified.

3. Shape the digital fan experience

For today’s tech-savvy sports fans, an unprecedented portion of game-day action now takes place through mobile devices.

That’s why leagues the like NFL and MLB are creating apps that feed fans a constant stream of game updates, player stats and fantasy trackers through their cellphones.

It’s also why more naming-rights partnerships are being built around increasing stadiums’ technological bandwidth and offering of digital experiences.

The recent naming-rights partnership between Avaya and the San Jose Earthquakes allowed the brand to both sell its technology to the stadium and put its name behind the first cloud-enabled stadium experience in MLS history.

There’s no question that digital action rivals that on the field for today’s sports fans. For a naming-rights partner, helping deliver those experiences is a way to earn credit and garner goodwill that extends beyond game day.

4. Think beyond game day

The real opportunity for naming rights is much bigger than home games during the regular season.

Naming-rights partners like MetLife and AT&T have both enjoyed additional exposure through other events hosted at MetLife Stadium and AT&T Stadium, from Super Bowl XLVIII to the 2014 NCAA Men’s Final Four.

When it opens in 2016, Stadio della Roma will offer its naming-rights partner the same perk. The stadium will double as a year-round entertainment destination housing shops, restaurants, bars, a Nike SuperStore, and the AS Roma Hall of Fame.

In today’s world of dynamic stadiums, naming-rights partners should enter negotiation with a clear understanding of what partnerships will look like on game day and beyond.

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