Peddling Naming Rights Wrong Answer

By Jason Menard

And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the NAPA Auto Parts Centre the Avis Rent-a-Car “We’re Number Two, We Try Harder” second-place team in the Rogers Mobility Division of the Wal-Mart National Hockey League, the Teacher’s Pension Fund of Ontario Toronto Maple Leafs. This pre-team announcement was brought to you by your friends at Canadian Tire.

Sound outrageous? Maybe. Is this day that far off? Probably not – especially in light of the fact that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Western Division has now been officially named the Telus Division, as part of an agreement with the league’s major sponsor.

Historians please note: this is officially the day that your job just got immeasurably harder.

Remember the hue and cry when, back in 1993, the National Hockey League decided to scrap years of history in an attempt to dumb down the divisional and conference breakdown for our yet-to-be-found American fans? Gary Bettman, newly minted as NHL commissioner, decided to make his new league emulate the league from whence he came – the NBA.

So instead of the more colourful Prince of Wales Conference and the Clarence Campbell Conference, both of which are names dripping with historical significance to a league steeped in tradition, we have the yawn-inducing Eastern and Western Conference. And instead of divisional names that pay the appropriate honour and respect to the league’s founding fathers: (Charles) Adams, (Conn) Smythe, (James) Norris, and (Lester) Patrick, we have divisional names that sort-of let you know where your teams are.

Hockey, along with baseball, are probably the two sports that can best trade on their pasts. These games were built upon solid names – whether they be storied franchises, influential families, or key players, and the old divisional and conference nomenclature was a way of not just playing respect for those that came before, but also enticing newer fans to discover the history of the game.

Now, if the Quebec League’s sponsored nomenclature catches on, the only enticement that conference and divisional names will create is the desire to find out what the latest unlimited minutes plan is.

But what happens if Telus hits a down period in its business? What happens when a company decides that the investment in sponsoring a sporting division is no longer providing an adequate return? Well, it’s going to mean a constant shifting of divisional titles that will make it harder and harder to appreciate a league’s history.

Much in the same way that most fans have given up trying to remember what a team’s stadium or arena is called, so too will they stop caring about the divisional name. And when that happens, doesn’t that mean that the value of the sponsor’s investment has diminished completely?

Take a look at Montreal. The Bell Centre sign shines brightly into the night informing all who purchased the facility’s naming rights. However, how many people still refer to the building as the Molson Centre? Even more, how many people will continue to call the building the Forum, even if it never carries that name? That being said, maybe Telus has made the smart decision in being first in. After all, there’s a good chance that no matter who sponsors the division in 10 years, there will be those who continue to refer to it as the Telus division.

And look at the U.S. college football bowl system. There are so many bowls, with so many ludicrous sponsors (the Chick-a-Fill Bowl anyone?) that corporate oversponsorship has completely robbed the bowls of any cachet that they may have once had.

How ridiculous will it be for people interested in a league’s history 20 years from now to look back at the fortunes of a team and follow its progression spanning a number of different divisional corporate sponsors? Yes, Telus could give way to Rona, which could give way to Saputo, which in turn will pass the rights on to Provigo, who will then pass it on to Bell. And yet the teams remain the same, the composition of the division remains the same, only the sponsor changes.

Everybody’s in search of the quick buck. But there is a coin that carries an immense amount of weight which sport leagues refuse to trade upon – history. Tradition, honour, memories, and an attachment to things past are easier when there’s a common thread holding them together. Stories are only compelling when there’s sufficient context. Instead of peddling off the league’s tradition for a here-and-now cash grab, why not get creative with the marketing of tradition?

Nothing says stability and value for a league than consistency. But by peddling off tradition for a quick marketing buck, sporting leagues are running the risk of diminishing the value of the sport for the most important consumers of all – the fans.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

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