On April 7, 2000, the Astros opened their shiny, oddly designed new ballpark in downtown Houston. Scott Rolen hit a home run, the Phillies won … and the first pitch was thrown out by Kenneth Lay, CEO of the Enron Corporation. He’d earned the right; it was his field, Enron Field, after all, bought in a 30-year, $100 million naming-rights deal. (George W. Bush, then just a presidential candidate, was there, too.) A year and a half later, Enron was a national disgrace, yet still made the Astros pay $2.1 million to get out of the naming contract. But when Lay threw out that first pitch, he was cheered. Everybody loved Enron. They were the company in a company town.
That’s what happens when you ally your team’s good name with a corporate brand. The Marlins were once forced to keep the name Pro Player Stadium for six years after that company was sold in bankruptcy. Compared to that, word that Citigroup is considering pulling out of its $400 million naming deal for the Mets’ new Citi Field isn’t all that bad. At least Citigroup is still in business, even if it’s because of the taxpayer.
The notion of selling your stadium’s naming rights is a fairly new one. It was frowned upon until the nineties (Mr. Wrigley got to name his stadium because he owned the team that played there). The arms race started after the Baltimore Orioles opened Camden Yards, in 1992. It was hugely profitable and popular, so everybody wanted a new sports palace. Of the 38 baseball and football stadiums that have been built since then (counting Citi Field and the new Yankee Stadium), 30 are named after corporate sponsors. Naming rights, along with lots of taxpayer subsidies, have paid for the boom. The Yankees didn’t need to sell Yankee Stadium rights because, well, the Yankees are Citigroup ... except, you know, solvent.
Taxpayers frustrated over their dollars being given to Citigroup and forwarded on to the Mets to have the tottering bank’s name everywhere didn’t seem too agitated when the Mets were financing the stadium’s construction with $90 million in capital funds from the city and $75 million in rent credits from the state. And if you’re going to start picking on Citigroup, don’t forget the government funds given to Delta Air Lines (the Delta Sky360 Club behind home plate), Chevrolet (official vehicle of Major League Baseball), and, yes, AIG (Yadier Molina’s 2006 NLCS homer flew right over their sign), along with several other team sponsors. Your money has helped subsidize the Mets for decades, and will continue to do so for decades to come, whatever the stadium ultimately ends up being named.