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Edison Field's Halo Effect

Sponsor of the Angels' home ballpark is getting plenty of free publicity, which irks its critics

October 28, 2002|Ralph Frammolino | Times Staff Writer

Edison International executives have been all aglow from the loads of publicity the company has garnered each time Edison Field, home of the world champion Anaheim Angels, has been mentioned during World Series broadcasts.

Yet that's just what has utility watchdog Doug Heller so steamed.

"It's particularly sour to see Edison's name in lights because consumers in Southern California are shelling out billions of dollars to bail it out," said Heller, senior consumer advocate at the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "It's unsavory to see their name associated with the baseball glory of the Angels."

Within the last several years, a veritable stampede of corporations has paid tens of millions of dollars to have their names put on ballparks, stadiums and professional hockey arenas. The goal is to raise their corporate profile with a flood of consumer "impressions" every time their names are mentioned in print or are captured on television.

For the most part, it works, according to sports marketing expert Dean Bonham.

"The fact of the matter is that naming rights, by most measures, is the most effective investment in sponsorship today," said Bonham, whose Denver-based firm has analyzed or negotiated more than 25 such deals. His firm's estimate of the naming-rights value for two rounds of baseball playoffs and a seven-game World Series: an extra $1 million to $2 million.

Edison officials declined to say how much they paid for the 1997 agreement that changed Anaheim Stadium (long known as the Big A) to Edison International (now called the Big Ed or just the Ed) for 20 years. But estimates have ranged from $30 million to $50 million.

Company officials say the deal has been a valuable way to earn goodwill, lead consumers to Edison's Web site and promote energy conservation among the 12 million residential and business customers of Southern California Edison, its regulated subsidiary.

They also say the strategy has enhanced "receptivity" for the company's unregulated ventures, such as selling home-security systems. And the World Series in particular, they add, has extended Edison's reach all the more, including to potential investors and Wall Street analysts.

"We're associated with a very positive experience," said Charles Basham, a senior project manager at Edison. "It lends itself to what you look for in naming rights -- the halo effect."

But corporations have also faced shareholder criticism that naming rights -- which typically cost about $2.5 million a year for baseball and hockey and $3 million to $4 million for football -- are a frivolous use of money. What's more, they can become a source of embarrassment, such as when fallen energy giant Enron Corp. was forced to strip its now-ignominious name from a Houston sports stadium.

The Edison name is hardly in the same league as Enron's when it comes to disrepute. But critics maintain that Edison deserves a share of the blame for the ill-conceived deregulation setup that led to California's 2000-01 energy crisis. They say Edison and other utilities helped to shape deregulation in a way that benefited them early on, and then when things went awry, they leaned on state regulators to bail them out.

For their part, Edison officials say they never really favored deregulation in the first place. In addition, they assert that the company itself has been a victim of high power prices, thanks in part to manipulation of the wholesale market by others.

Nonetheless, a San Francisco consumer-advocacy group called the Utility Reform Network, or TURN, has sued Edison to recover an estimated $3.5 billion in higher rates charged to customers.

By getting the company's name on the Angels' stadium, Edison is putting itself "right up there with Walt Disney, Gene Autry and all of these family-friendly images while they're ripping off the families of Southern California for $3.5 billion," said Mike Florio, a senior attorney at TURN. "It's a little false advertising there."

Heller, the other consumer advocate, found himself a bit conflicted during much of the World Series. He said he rooted for the Angels but felt a twinge of frustration each time the name Edison Field was uttered.

Though company officials say that Edison International shareholders paid for the naming rights, Heller insists otherwise. He is convinced that the money ultimately came from Southern California Edison ratepayers.

Last week, as the Angels and San Francisco Giants were battling it out for baseball supremacy, the state's Public Utilities Commission approved another surcharge, Heller noted.

"Edison should be a local pariah," he said. "But through the Angels they get their name in lights every night."

The situation hasn't been quite as contentious for SBC Pacific Bell, which paid $51 million to have the Giants' new stadium in San Francisco called Pacific Bell Park.

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