It's not often that a professional sports team gives a middle finger to a corporate sponsor, but that's what the Philadelphia 76ers' owners did yesterday, informing the world that they will no longer be referring to their home as the "Wells Fargo Center," but rather just "The Center."
The team's reasoning? Hey, man, they're not paying us a cent to call it that.
... "We also continue to enjoy our relationship with Comcast Spectacor as tenants at a world-class arena, but that particular bank is currently not a sponsor of the Philadelphia 76ers," [76ers chief revenue officer Chris] Heck said ...
Some background: The arena in question is owned by Comcast Spectacor, the cable/arena management giant that also owns the Flyers and operates pretty much every sports facility in the nation that AEG doesn't already have its claws in. When the building opened way back in 1996, CoreStates Bank agreed to pay $2 million a year to have its name—or that of its corporate successors—slapped on the side of it. Through a series of mergers, the CoreStates Center became the (awesomely acronymed) First Union Center, then the Wachovia Center, and finally, in 2010, the Wells Fargo Center. Meanwhile, Comcast Spectacor sold off the 76ers to billionaire Josh Harris, who immediately set out to see if he could create a winning team by having the team lose every game possible, a strategy that has so far been half-successful, at least.
Harris's penchant for thinking outside the box apparently extends to corporate sponsorships, because somewhere along the line he noticed that Wells Fargo was paying his landlord for the arena name, not him—and was declining to throw cash his way to become the Official Bank of the Philadelphia 76ers®. So until he gets to share in the boodle, Wells Fargo will remain the bank that shall not be named.
In a way, it's surprising it's taken this long to get here. The entire naming rights industry—which in just a couple of decades has gone from nonexistent to globally ubiquitous, with the amount of money changing hands each year reaching well into the billions—is based on an extremely tenuous thread: the willingness of everyone from sportscasters to regular fans to spout your corporate name whenever they want to talk about the building where games take place. There was a momentary ripple of uncertainty early on when the Denver Post announced that it would refer to the Broncos' new stadium as "Mile High" rather than by the name of the investment company that had paid $120 million for the privilege. But ever since the Post sheepishly backed down, corporate names have reigned supreme—the occasional protest T-shirt notwithstanding.
The 76ers' move, though, has the potential to throw the whole system into disarray. If teams don't feel obligated to use corporate names unless the corporations in question throw some advertising dollars their way, what's to stop, say, TV broadcasters from doing the same? ("While we have great respect for the Premier League, Barclays is not the official bank of our network.") Already, Deadspin has (possibly tongue-in-cheek, though I hope not) declared that it will be refusing to call the Tampa Bay Rays' stadium "Tropicana Field" unless it gets free juice boxes. And there's some precedent here as well: The subway station where Mets fans disembark to watch their heroes swing feebly at pitches is known as "Mets/Willets Point," because both the team and the bank that owns naming rights to the stadium declined to pay the Metropolitan Transit Authority to put the official name on the station as well.
If this does catch on, it would certainly put a dent in the value of naming rights. Already, recycled stadium names tend to be worth less than brand-new ones. If you want to buy the name of the former Oakland/Network Associate/McAfee Coliseum once O.co's $1.2 million a year rights deal expires in 2017, you can probably get it for ten bucks with a Groupon—presumably on the grounds that once naming fatigue sets in, fans are likely to just throw in the towel and start calling it "the stadium." If so, that would mean less money in the pot for new stadium construction, which would conceivably mean fewer new stadiums—which you could see as a good or a bad thing, depending on your taste for cupholders, not to mention whether you're a Rams fan in St. Louis or Inglewood.
(This is assuming, of course, that companies weren't going to wake up on their own and notice that all marketing studies show that spending money on naming rights is basically just throwing money down a hole. But we digress.)
All of which, meanwhile, raises the question of what we—both we sports fans and we members of the media—should be calling these places, if not by the logos on the paid ad signage on their fronts. Reverting to former non-corporate names is tempting, but not always applicable: The place where the Tigers play baseball is decidedly not Tiger Stadium, and what do you do with teams that never played in a non-corporate-monikered building, like the Arizona Diamondbacks? And just sticking with "the Sixers' arena" or something like that—think of it as the "Washington NFL team" solution—is both problematic and wordy when it inevitably leads to such constructions as "Bruce Springsteen thrilled fans today in a sold-out show at the stadium where the New York Giants and New York Jets play American football in New Jersey."
It's a linguistic mess we've landed in, to be sure, and one that every sports journalist and fan will have to sort out for themselves. A dictate from, say, the AP Stylebook wouldn't be a bad thing either. For me, I'm thinking of taking Josh Harris's idea and applying it to my own writing—if you own a business and want me to refer to the Sixers' home arena as "the Joe's Pizza Center," or for that matter to the team itself as the "Fighting Bob's Auto Plaza Basketball Players," I'm open to any and all suggestions. The micropayments line starts to the right.