GORDON WHITE: Bank On It: Corporate Stadium Names a Waste
Go back in time about 2,000 years give or take a few. The Roman legions are preparing to march north.
The nasty Emperor (they were all nasty) plans to send his legions into Gaul to put down the restless natives. You know how cantankerous those French can be at times.
But it seems there was a slight hitch in the Emperor's plans. He was low on cash. He could not move those legions without bags of gold and silver dinars.
So one of the Emperor's bright, young money men came up with a brilliant idea. Why not entice a rich Roman merchant, who owns lots of banks, slaves and ships, into paying cart loads of these shiny bright dinars for the rights to put his company name on the Roman Coliseum? Ergo, the Coliseum becomes Augustus Firstus Trustus Arenus.
Now those Roman legions could start marching north.
Of course, the renamed Coliseum became known over the Seven Hills by the acronym, "AFTA".
Once that fat, old Emperor got his dinars, he and the Roman senators who did not want to stab the Emperor that month got back to enjoying the games at "AFTA". The Emperor sat on his throne at the L yard line, all wrapped up in his white bed sheet, watching some of the ordinary Roman folks being gobbled up by lions.
Now return to the 21st century. What do you know? Nothing much has changed over the centuries.
When the owners of an arena need a quick financial fix it seems there is always a company willing to pay mounds of dollars to put its moniker on that coliseum or stadium. And just like ancient times, the modern masses get the short end of the stick in the process.
Today's ordinary folks do not end up as hors doeuvres for the big cats. But, as taxpayers or fans, they are truly being thrown to the wolves.
For one thing, most citizens, trapped by the recession, can't afford current ticket prices.
Then these hard working Americans, who still have jobs, helped to bail out failing financial institutions with their tax dollars while some of those companies and their conniving executives put up millions and millions of dollars to have their logos on big stadiums.
The super grand daddy of all these foolish stadium-naming deals involves Citigroup and the New York Mets, who are to open their new baseball arena at the start of the coming major league season.
For the ridiculously high price of $20 million per year for 20 years, this replacement for Shea Stadium will be called Citi Field. The total tab comes to a mere $400 million.
Meanwhile, Citigroup is using, or misusing, $45 billion of TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) money from the Federal Government.
That is our money. It is tax payers' $45 billion of bailout aid to a huge financial enterprise that screwed up royally under the studied mismanagement of a slew of board members and executives who are, as always, over paid for incompetence.
I do not remember Congress saying anything about using bailout cash to rent name space on arenas. But then, Congress and the former president and his Treasury Secretary did not put any stipulations on the money, apparently. These companies took the money and gave out huge bonuses to undeserving employees who assisted in the big implosion on Wall Street. They also took bailout dollars and fitted out private jets in order to fly away to exotic party locations.
Citigroup and the Mets claim no TARP money will be used for renting name rights. Are they kidding?
If the naming money comes from Citigroup and Citigroup was so close to bankruptcy that it sought and got $45 billion of Federal assistance, how can it be said no TARP money will be paid to the Mets? Is Citigroup getting the naming money from little green men from Mars?
Citigroup became the biggest sucker in the stadium naming games and has rightfully come under considerable criticism for this exorbitant waste of money.
But there are numerous other financial institutions that have made naming deals for stadiums.
Here in North Carolina, Bank of America pays $7 million per year so that the Carolina Panthers' arena in Charlotte is called Bank of America Stadium. Of course, we lowly tax payers joined in to hand over another $45 billion of our tax or TARP dollars to save Bank of America's tail.
Citigroup and Bank of America have thus far gotten more TARP aid than any of the other stadium-naming companies.
You generous tax payers forked over a measly $25 billion of TARP to rescue JP Morgan Chase from collapse. Meanwhile, Chase is paying $2.2 million per year so that the Arizona Diamondbacks' arena in Phoenix, with its removable roof, is known as Chase Field. See what nice folks you tax payers are. You helped name a stadium out in the desert.
Going on down the list according to declining TARP infusions, the following companies have their names on arenas:
PNC Financial, $7.6 billion TARP, pays $1.5 million annually so the Pittsburgh Pirates play in PNC Park; Bank of New York Mellon, $3.3 billion TARP, pays $1.8 million annually so the National Hockey League's Pittsburgh Penguins play in Mellon Arena, formerly the Pittsburgh Civic Arena, known to Penguin fans as the Igloo; Key Corp, $2.5 billion TARP, pays $300,000 annually so the Seattle Arena is known as Key Arena; Comerica, $2.25 billion TARP, pays $2.2 million annually so the Detroit Tigers play in Comerica Park; M & T Bank Corp, $400 million TARP, pays $5 million annually so the Baltimore Ravens of the NFL play in M & T Stadium.
Of course, all of these naming deals are legal contracts, most of which were made prior to the current collapse of Wall Street money houses. Thus parties to all of these name agreements claim that unless the companies go into bankruptcy the contracts must be honored.
If it was not for the Federal Government and the poor tax payer, those companies probably would be in or near bankruptcy right now. Then we would have a lot of no-name arenas or possibly a chain of stadiums from coast to coast called "Chapter Eleven Play Houses".
Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Domestic Policy, said he thinks the Federal Government, through the Treasury Department, has the right to direct these banks and financial institutions sever their stadium-naming contracts.
Congressman Kucinich, Democrat of Ohio, said the government has to make the banks break those contracts. He said he plans hearings on the stadium issues.
However, Treasury Department officials from the Bush and Obama administrations have said they do not have the right to abrogate such contracts.
But why don't the parties to these contracts show some sympathy toward fellow Americans who are tax payers? Have they no sense of what is morally right and wrong in this time of recession?
As Joseph N. Welch so famously asked over half a century ago, "Sir, have you no sense of decency?"
We know the bankers and money lenders from Wall Street have no sympathetic feelings toward their fellow Americans and care not a twit for the tax payers or average citizens.
So that leaves us to look to major league baseball, football, basketball and hockey teams plus other stadium owners such as municipalities in hopes they might release these misguided financial institutions from their obligations under naming contracts? It would be the right thing to do just now so tax payers aren't stuck with paying for company logos on arenas.
As for the banks and money men on Wall Street, can one ever expect them to try to work out of these naming deals? Hardly.
So do not look to such CEO's as Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup, Kenneth Lewis of Bank of America and Robert Kelly of Bank of New York Mellon to take any action to end the stadium naming fiasco. Remember, these guys were part of the reason our economy has been ravaged and the Wall Street house of cards collapsed.
These were not rocket scientists when brains were needed to save our economy. Instead, they proved to be incompetent nincompoops.
Also, not once have these men said "Thank you" to tax payers or the Federal Government for the bail out money. So what do you expect from such greedy and arrogant men? They are just like Roman Emperors of 2,000 years ago -- pompous and unaware of the needs of the common folk.
It may be too much to hope for, but come Monday, April 13, when they play their home opener against the San Diego Padres, wouldn't it be a pleasure to see the New York Metropolitans playing in a brand new arena called Mets Field instead of Citi Field.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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