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They've Created a Monster at Candlestick

October 08, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The stadium built at Candlestick Point more than 44 years ago can feel like the coldest and windiest place in the country on fog-shrouded summer nights. It and the spit of land it sits on were named for an all-but-extinct wading bird.

But Candlestick Park is as loved around here as an arthritic family pet.

Now, the arena that locals affectionately call the Stick is at the center of a standoff on corporate naming rights -- an issue that has riled sports fans and the advertising-averse across the country.

In what may be a symbolic gesture, voters next month will decide on a ballot proposition that says the stadium at Candlestick Point should keep the name Candlestick Park.

But there's a complication: The San Francisco 49ers, who call the park home, in late September sold the publicly owned stadium's name to Bay Area-based Monster Cable Products Inc. Signs at the stadium already have been changed to "Monster Park." No one knows exactly what the legal impact will be if the proposition passes.

Even the ballot argument against Proposition H stresses that a vote for the Stick is a symbolic cry in the wind -- "an opportunity to send a signal that San Francisco remains on the front lines against the increased ... commercialization of everyday life."

Nationwide, voters have cast their lot on such an issue only once, in Wisconsin, when they authorized the Green Bay Packers in 2000 to sell the naming rights to revered Lambeau Field for a minimum of $100 million up front. The deal would have blunted the burden to taxpayers for a major field renovation.

But the field -- named for Packer founder Curly Lambeau -- has iconic status among fans, and even the mayor of Green Bay and the football team's president vehemently opposed the name sale. Under those conditions, there were no corporate takers and the deal never happened.

San Francisco is writing that story in reverse. It's no surprise that some here would take a strong stand. After all, this is the city that passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance to keep big-box chain stores at bay.

"Across the political spectrum, voters and sports fans are fed up with the intrusion of corporate marketers into every part of our lives and culture," said Board of Supervisors President Matt Gonzalez, chief architect of the ballot measure. "I doubt voters in San Francisco will want to trade local history and everything associated with Candlestick Park just for more corporate advertising."

In 1988, there were only three naming-rights deals at major league sports facilities, with a total value of $25 million. Today, there are 67 such deals valued at $3.63 billion, said Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports marketing consultant who has negotiated more than half a dozen deals.

Bonham believes only a handful of arenas are untouchable, most notably Fenway Park in Boston and New York's Yankee Stadium. (To the horror of many, even the Dodgers' new owner is mulling a naming deal for Dodger Stadium.)

High schools and colleges are striking deals too: There's the Taco Bell Arena at Boise State University in Idaho. And, of course, there are all those bowls, such as the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.

Novel marketing doesn't end there.

Massachusetts legislators caused a minor uproar last year when they proposed selling naming rights to state parks and forests, including the Walden Woods immortalized by Henry David Thoreau. Criticism wilted the plan.

New York City has earned its share of scorn with a deal that makes Snapple the official purveyor of beverages in all schools and city buildings. In exchange, Snapple is promoting New York as a tourist destination. (New York tabloids have glibly renamed the metropolis "The Big Snapple.")

Many wonder what's next.

Joining Supervisor Gonzalez to promote San Francisco's ballot measure recently was Gary Ruskin, executive director of Oregon-based Commercial Alert. Ruskin's group condemns the pervasive creep of advertising into public spaces.

"Are we going to sell naming rights to neighborhoods?" he asked. "Are we going to have Burger King Bernal Heights? The McDonald's Mission? Where's it going to end?"

Then there's the risk of corporate scandal and civic embarrassment, a la Enron Field in Houston. Now it's Minute Maid Park.

"Monster Corp. could be the next corporate monster," Ruskin suggested, saying San Francisco must draw "a line in the sand."

In the case of Candlestick Park, however, the line already has been crossed once.

San Francisco was among the trendsetters when it authorized the 49ers to sell Candlestick naming rights in 1995 to 3Com Corp. Fans hated it. Hardly anyone outside the team, city officials and traffic reporters called it 3Com Park.

That deal, and the name, expired in 2002. Then-Mayor Willie Brown tried to forge a new deal, but supervisors blocked him. Ruskin hailed the Stick as "the first professional sports stadium in the United States to return to a popular name."

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