Where do we draw the line when it comes to naming rights for public places?
I've heard it on the radio, where they shill for anything, and read the announcement in the newspaper. Mall of America Field at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.
Trips off the tongue, doesn't it? Sort of like the north Minneapolis building formally known as Lucy Craft Laney at Cleveland Park Community School, which most of us call Lucy Laney. Or Oriole Park at Camden Yards, known universally as Camden Yards. You can lead the public to excess, but you can't make us use it.
It's just another example of the commercialization of the public realm in the Twin Cities. We pay most of the bill to erect stadia and arenas through sales taxes, tickets or state bonds but the sponsors who kick in the relatively few last dollars in the deal get the naming rights. There's Target Center. Xcel Energy Center. TCF Bank Stadium. And Target Field is on the way.
Target Center is the most excusable of the private names on public buildings. The arena's private owners financed the building and supplemented their income with Target's cash in one of the earlier such deals nationally.
When those owners ran into trouble, the city bought the Wolves den and inherited the commercialism.
The $3 million per year Xcel deal is the most puzzling. At least the Mall of the Universe is in the competitive business of retailing, along with Target. TCF also competes in what we quaintly used to call banking, before lenders morphed into the financial services industry and some of TCF's competitors dragged our economy into our Not-So-Great Depression. But why does a monopoly utility need the publicity of an arena name? It's not like people where I live can sign up with a competing electric company.
The transition in naming of our baseball stadia shows how far we've ebbed in our sense of the distinction between the public and private realms.
The Metrodome was named after a South Dakotan who adopted Minnesota for his political ambitions and rose to national renown. Had Republicans controlled state government at the time, it could just as well have been named for Frank Kellogg or Harold Stassen, both Minnesotans and distinguished statesmen on the world and national stages.
Target Field will be named after the ubiquitous bullseye company, which seems to be imprinting its brand all over that corner of the warehouse district. We're waiting for the other public building in the neighborhood, Hennepin County's incinerator, to rebrand as the Target Eternal Flame. Target has distinguished itself with philanthropy in this town, but is there a point where a presence is too much?
For example, we can't help but notice that the red-and-white corporate logo would fit perfectly over the clock face at City Hall. But that's not likely soon. The Municipal Building Commission, which runs the building, so far hasn't been interested in peddling naming rights. In fact, it soon will inscribe the building's historical name and date over the 4th Street entrance.
The City Council balked earlier this decade at selling the naming rights to the entire Minneapolis Convention Center. But it was ready to do a $25 million deal to sell naming rights for portions of the building's addition. That fell through when Xcel lost interest, thank goodness. But some areas inside have sponsor hookups, such as Metro Transit's deal that puts its name on a visitor information kiosk. The downtown library also has named spaces after donors, such as the Pohlads.
The woman to whom I'm married tells me I'm a hopeless throwback on the commercialization of public buildings. I'm willing to accept some parts of this devil's bargain; it's a matter of degrees.
There's room for public-partnerships in some areas of civic enterprise. But when the public erects and pays for a sports venue, it seems the private sector ought to be frozen out on the name of the facility unless it makes an equal or bigger contribution. Outfield fences long have been fair game for ads, especially in small towns where local businesses know the value of a public gathering place and a team. Hockey boards, too. This newspaper has been among those advertising. But selling space for a shorter term strikes me as a different proposition than slapping a name on a building for decades. So let's propose that a donor who wants naming rights has to scrape up at least half of the building's brick-and-mortar cost. Nobody has met that threshold yet here.
The Metrodome deal is between the Vikings and the mall. The Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission allowed the team greater latitude with naming rights as sole tenant with the Twins about to vacate. The idea was that the extra money could improve team revenues, which after all is one of the reasons the Vikings want a new stadium with their lease expiring in early 2012.
The amount of cash involved hasn't been disclosed, but the short-term nature of the deal is underscored by the temporary MOA banner that hangs from the Dome's exterior. The team also has peddled the rights to two of the stadium gates. There's one purchased by the Minnesota National Guard, which at least has the saving grace of being a public purpose, and one for Caribou Coffee, which does not. Plans are afoot to sell naming rights for at least two more gates.
A colleague suggests that if the team could land Microsoft, that entrance could be renamed Bill Gates.
We'd rather pay another buck per ticket.