Marlins have hope for stadium naming rights deal as landscape changing but not dying
By Risa Polansky
Through the recession and potentially beyond, we could see more short-term and in-kind sports venue sponsorships like the newly announced LandShark Lager deal at Dolphin Stadium, marketing experts say.
Still, though it's unlikely naming rights contracts through the next several years will carry huge price tags, the depressed economy doesn't spell the end of long-term, lucrative deals, they predicted, forecasting hope for the Marlins in a new Little Havana ballpark.
"There's no reason to think when this economic malaise gets past us… some of the big stadiums that are out there won't be signing some bigger deals," said Zach Anderson, a marketing veteran who runs sports branding blog BrandDunk.com. "There will always be a market for those long-term deals."
In 2006, now-financially troubled Citigroup inked a $400 million, 20-year deal to call the new New York Mets ballpark Citi Field.
But since the economic crash, all's been fairly quiet on the sports-venue sponsorship front — until last week, when Jimmy Buffett brought Margaritaville to Miami-Dade.
The carefree Key West crooner clinched a season-long deal to rename Dolphin Stadium LandShark Stadium after the Busch beer that bears his Margaritaville label.
Players haven't disclosed the terms of the deal, but it's been reported that the short-term arrangement is based on in-kind payments: Buffett appearances and other marketing opportunities in exchange for the new, temporary stadium signage.
"I think this is something that people are going to see more of in the future," Mr. Anderson said, although the days of lucrative, longer-term deals are "absolutely not" gone for good.
"I don't think they're over. I think they're kind of quiet right now," he said.
Noted sports economist and author Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, said the same.
Companies spending lavishly to promote themselves — a form of what he called "conspicuous consumption" — "is now seen in bad taste because of the difficulty of the economic times," he said.
But that doesn't mean it will forever stay out of vogue.
"It will pick up as the economy picks up," Dr. Zimbalist predicted, though "it's going to be a much more subdued market."
Regardless of the economy, a deal for the Marlins in Miami would never equal that of the Mets in New York, he said.
"In any event, you would not find a $400 million deal in Miami," he said. "That is something that only could have happened in New York and with a financials company."
But by 2012, when the new, 37,000-capacity, retractable-roof Miami Marlins stadium is expected to open at the site of the old Orange Bowl, the team could have a shot at landing a deal, Dr. Zimbalist said — though prospects are not nearly as sweet as before the downturn.
"I would be very surprised if there was a deal that exceeded $2 million to $3 million annually over a 10-year period" for the Marlins, he said. "Because of the market, I just don't think the advertising market is going to be strong enough. I think there's going to be some residual cold feet."
But to what degree?
That's the big debate in the marketing world now, said Barbara E. Kahn, marketing expert and dean of the University of Miami's School of Business Administration.
The question, she said, is whether we're seeing a reset — a time when assumptions remain the same but behavior is different because of the economy — or a complete paradigm shift.
Considering public outcry after companies that received federal bailout funds paid employee bonuses, "you've seen a little hint of, this is more than just a reset," Dr. Kahn said.
But it's tough to tell now whether business as usual will return full force when economic prosperity does.
"I don't think that we're going to unlearn the type of consumerism we've become accustomed to," she said, but the moral dimension that's come into play during the recession may stick around.
The public may accept a company doling out the big bucks to see its name on a sports venue, but people may also press to see to it that the company is also operating ethically and contributing to the greater good, she said.
"One of the most important assets a company owns is brand equity," and building that "has been shown to be a very lucrative endeavor," Dr. Kahn said. "What may happen now is, "let me just make sure its being done for the right reasons.'"
Mr. Anderson of the BrandDunk blog also predicted that big sponsorship deals will get more scrutiny in the aftermath of the recession, benefiting the corporations rather than the teams.
"But the dollars will still be significant," he said.
The planned Marlins ballpark could be a draw for companies looking for long-term exposure, and factors such as the team's notoriously low payroll and the stadium's residential location may not be deterrents, he said.
Though Little Havana isn't downtown Miami, that means little to a company based outside the county, he said — to most, Miami is Miami.
And associating the new ballpark with the old Orange Bowl could be a good move for a corporation, he said, if played carefully.
In its final years, many came to associate the O-Bowl with disrepair. But capitalizing on its long, rich history could be a boon for a company seeking recognition, Mr. Anderson said.
"The Florida Marlins, just like everyone else — there's a great deal out there."