Devil in the Details

Marketwatch

It's a familiar story: this summer, two more professional athletic teams sold stadium- naming rights to publicity- hungry corporations. For a cool $80 million, the Nashville Predators- an expansion team in the National Hockey League- agreed to name their new arena the Gaylord Entertainment Center, while the National Football League's Tennessee Titans were paid $30 million to dub their home stadium the Adelphia Coliseum. A majority of the nation's professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey teams now play in arenas named for corporations, and the percentage is likely to grow. There's already talk that the naming rights for the venerable Yankee Stadium and the proposed new Fenway Park will soon be up for grabs. And the Boston Celtics just announced (for an amount, sources told The Boston Globe, between $8 and $12 million) their practice facility will be called the Sports Authority Training Center at Healthpoint.

Sports purists cringe when the fabled ballparks of yesterday are replaced with new, commercially named arenas, and the appearance of venues like the Florida Panthers' National Car Rental Center (or like the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl or the Weed Eater Independence Bowl in college football) brings the tackiness to new heights. What's more, the sale of naming rights blurs the line between advertising and entertainment, making intrusive marketing the norm in yet another corner of daily life.

But what if the main alternative to a sale of naming rights is public financing? That's the dilemma facing many public officials today. Denver Mayor Wellington Webb has opposed selling the naming rights to the Broncos' new arena- even if keeping the Mile High name would cost taxpayers $50 million in corporate funding. In Massachusetts, on the other hand, House Speaker Thomas Finneran has publicly stated that saving taxpayers' money is more important than preserving the Fenway name.

The triumph of commercialism in stadium names is just one more sign of commercialism's clout in sports as a whole. After all, running a successful franchise often depends on having high-priced corporate skyboxes and "premium seating"- amenities that require large team revenues and the construction of new stadiums. Skyrocketing player salaries only add to the problem. Without a change in the way professional sports teams are operated, the trend is likely to continue.

And now one enterprising sports league has taken the process a step further. If all goes according to schedule, the Collegiate Profess ional Basketball League (CPBL) will begin to play in eight cities in November 2000. The competitors will be college-aged players; the league will pay them a living wage and use various financial incentives to encourage them to earn college degrees; all players will study at least part time. The result, promises CPBL President Paul McMann, will be a league far less exploitative of its players than the NCAA and far more family friendly and affordable than the NBA.

What truly drives the CPBL, however, is corporate sponsorship. For $500,000 a corporation can both sponsor a team and buy that team's naming rights. Even the league's name is for sale. So far, three corporations have signed on, establishing Boston's Team Lycos, Detroit's Team Broadcast.com, and Chicago's Team Acunet.net. "I consider us in the advertising business," McMann told a CNN interviewer last March, "and we have built our advertising business around basketball." McMann even referred to his teams as "essentially billboards," which suggests that- as admirable as some of his goals may be- athletics as a whole could suffer from a renewed bout of commercialism if the CPBL is a success.

Paul McMann could still learn a lot about selling out to corporations from one Australian Rules Football Club, however. Faced with $7 million in debt and a morale-sapping series of losses, the Geelong Cats were in desperate need of cash- and they had already sold their home stadium's naming rights. In June, however, team captain Garry Hocking came up with a novel solution. In return for over 100,000 Australian dollars and a donation to a local animal shelter, Hocking agreed to legally change his name to "Whiskas" for a week. The cat food company was delighted by the exposure, and Whiskas's teammates were pleased by the infusion of money. The only victims were the fans and the integrity of the game.

- Edward Cohn


A Blight On The Burbs

Like many big cities, Houston is forever losing population, tax revenue, and private investment to the suburbs. Luckily the state of Texas has just the urban renewal program to stem the tide: Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones (TIRZs). Under the TIRZ program, a bond is floated to subsidize developers who will finance various new building projects and infrastructure improvements. Property taxes are then capped at fixed current-dollar amounts. Developers build, the tax valuations go up, and all the funds over those original caps go toward paying off the developers. It's a great way to revitalize blighted neighborhoods that lack the resources to revitalize themselves.

It took a number of years for Houston to sort out just how to use the TIRZ program, but recently the city has been on a TIRZ spree. Seven zones were named just this summer. So what did the trick? The city realized that it was a lot easier to set up TIRZs in designer fashion malls and upscale residential neighborhoods than in run-down slums.

The Galleria, site of a new TIRZ-subsidized $410-million face-lift and tummy tuck, was already the most expensive real estate in Houston. One city councilman calls it "the location, location, location area" of town. Developers in Memorial City, another nearby mall, will get tax money to better accommodate the crush of upper-middle-class people clamoring to shop at Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, and Nieman Marcus.

Some of the TIRZs are worthwhile. There's one in Midtown and another in Ward 5. But if you were a developer, why would you take your windfall in the blighted central city when you could just as easily take it in the 'burbs?

Mayor Lee Brown recently responded to criticism of his TIRZ policy in the Houston Chronicle. The Galleria and Memorial City, the mayor argued, are "vulnerable areas" that Houston must "protect" so it "can face whatever change the future holds without fear." (Note to Mayor Brown: The fear of having to shop at JCPenney doesn't count.) The mayor also addressed charges that, according to any reasonable interpretation of Texas law, many of the new zones are illegal on their face. "Some argue that TIRZs were intended solely to fight blight," wrote Mayor Brown. "But the Legislature made it clear that TIRZs can and should be used to encourage both development and redevelopment alike." Actually, we're not sure even Mayor Brown was so confident of his argument. But don't worry. The fix is in. In the ordinances that created the Galleria and Memorial City TIRZs, the city inserted the following oh-so-helpful clause: "The city hereby excepts the proposed zone from compliance with any city reinvestment zone guidelines that the zone does not meet."

- Jeremy Derfner


Just Don't Drink The Water

To help burnish his environmental profile, George W. Bush is now peddling George W. Bush for President Bottled Water on his campaign Web site. For $18 you can order a dozen 16-ounce bottles of crisp, clear George W.

But do you really want to buy water from the man Texans for Public Justice and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have called the "number-one recipient of Texas toxic cash"? According to the most recently available Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, Texas leads the nation in overall pollution by a wide margin and is one of the top three surface water polluters (20.8 million pounds in 1997). In 1996 Texas per-capita spending was 47th in the nation for water resource programs and 46th for protecting and regulating drinking water. Texas also ranks ninth in drinking water violations detected and reported.

Bush may not be responsible for all of Texas's environmental woes. But he's done his part to make it worse. In 1995 Bush signed a law that allowed companies to conduct voluntary self-audits in return for immunity from civil and criminal fines for environmental violations. Only after environmental groups objected that the law was too broad and the EPA threatened to take over enforcement did the Bush administration pass a modified version of the act in 1997.

Bush appointed Barry McBee to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), which, among other things, "protects water quality and integrity of public drinking water systems in Texas." On McBee's watch, the TNRCC repealed surprise inspections of chemical plants, refineries, and other regulated industries in favor of more lenient advance- notice inspections.

Ralph Marquez, another Bush appointee to the same commission, is a former lobbyist whose clients included Texas Industries (TXI). In 1993 the Texas Water Commission (the predecessor of the current TNRCC, on which Marquez now sits) found that TXI's releases were harming ground water.

With all that scary stuff floating around in Texas drinking water, we'd be downright afraid to drink the stuff. In fact, it seems like George W. is too. George W. Bush for President Bottled Water comes from Kentucky.

- Alex Nguyen


Among The Libertarians

Libertarians love contracts almost as much as they love liberty. So when I signed up for the Cato Institute's "Cato University" this summer, I knew I could expect challenging lectures, expensive catering, and plenty of golf- just as promised. But once the folks at Cato discovered I was from The American Prospect, I was politely informed that per mission to attend was contingent on my not writing about the 100 or so libertarian-minded conferees and their doings. Cato University, I was told, was "a gathering of like-minded individuals."

In the spirit of the occasion, I entered into a verbal contract- voluntarily, mind you- not to write about the conference, and come August, I boarded a plane for sunny San Diego, with visions of "Spontaneously Ordered Volley ball" dancing in my head. So I can't tell you any details about the graying libertarians on vacation, the end less and increasingly unfunny Clinton jokes ("Bill Clinton, the adulterer-in-chief- I mean, commander-in-chief"), or my conversations over Chardonnay with intense young iconoclasts who railed against the evils of socialism, gun control, and corn subsidies.

Alas, I had already been pegged as a liberal. And since liberals love social engineering and welfare states and property takings and so forth, it was also presumed that I had no great respect for the sanctity of contracts- verbal or otherwise. At least, that's the only explanation I can think of for why the organizers nearly always managed to have a chaperone from the Cato staff seated with me at my lunch table- Conference Director Laura Major one day, Cato Vice President David Boaz the next. And it certainly must be the reason they announced my impending arrival at the conference's opening session and later warned the younger attendees, as one told me, to "be on your best behavior."

Thankfully, the news blackout isn't total. Cato worked out a somewhat different contract with at least one journalist. Colin P. McNickle, editorial page editor of the Pitts burgh Tribune-Review, was the lone accredited reporter at the conference- further details about which can be found in the sympathetic lead editorials McNickle dispatched from our resort digs at the Rancho Bernardo. Of course, the owner of McNickle's paper- Richard Mellon Scaife- gave Cato $1,903,726 last year. Maybe that's why he got better freedom of contract.

- Nicholas Confessore


Depression Chic

Bohemians have long affected the dress and lifestyle of the poor. As bohemia moved uptown, designer Calvin Klein was probably the first to turn the clothing associated with poverty into an upscale fashion statement. However, the fall "Men's Fashions of the Times" (The New York Times, September 12) takes this trend to new heights (or depths). A 10-page spread headed "Wild Boys" proclaims: "Haunting images of the Great Depression and the desperate young men who rode the rails inspire the style of today's adventurers." The accompanying photo spread of young models looking like 1930s hobos features "crew-neck sweater, $629 at Malo, 814 Madison Avenue . . . Sport coat, $595, by Joseph Abboud. At Saks Fifth Avenue." Our favorite is a young man with coal-smeared face wearing $23 Dickies overalls over a $1,300 white cashmere sweater (available at Hermes, 11 East 57th Street). So the poor are in fashion after all. Somebody tell Trent Lott.

- R. K.


Crazy Haley

Call him Crazy Haley. With his smiling face splashed across a full-page news paper ad in USA TODAY, Republican National Committee (RNC) Chairman Haley Barbour was radiating all the grace and savoir faire of a roadside used- car salesman. This was back in December 1995. Congressional Republicans were locked in a nasty political battle with Bill Clinton. They'd already gone through one government shutdown, and they'd soon go through another. During the lull between the two, the RNC ran an ad in USA TODAY and the Capitol Hill news paper Roll Call, which has Barbour holding a promotional, oversized check for $1 million, made out to "Your Name Here." In large print, the ad asks, "Heard the one about Republicans 'cutting' Medicare? The fact is Republicans are increasing Medicare spending by more than half. I'm Haley Barbour, and I'm so sure of that fact I'm willing to give you this check for a million dollars if you can prove me wrong."

Challenges like that usually just drift into the ephemera of our political past. But not this time. Four years later, the RNC is still fighting the 1995 battle over its Medicare proposal- only this time in federal court. It turns out quite a few people took Barbour up on his dare. And in 1996, a Democratic congressional aide named Robert Shireman sued to find out just how many there were. At that point, a more easily rattled outfit might have started casting about for a way to settle the whole matter quietly and discreetly, but not the RNC. They turned around and sued every last one of the people who had taken Barbour up on his challenge. Talk about penalizing civic participation!

The RNC eventually settled with Shireman (who was reportedly the only contest entrant to extract some money from the RNC). And nearly 60 of the original 80 defendants- intimidated, no doubt, by a threat to make them pay for two years worth of the RNC's legal expenses- dropped from the case by agreeing to forfeit their claims. But 22 defendants remain- 22 who believe Barbour's claim was false and want their million dollars.

Those 22- let's call them the Haley Barbour 22- include Michigan Senator Carl Levin, Mississippi Representative Gene Taylor, an 83-year-old woman from Dayton, Ohio, a former Navy cook, and a lawyer for the federal government. For the past two years, as though caught in some eddy in the ocean of time, the RNC and the Haley Barbour 22 have been arguing back and forth over those same questions about Medicare cuts that Democrats and Republicans were wrestling over back in 1995 and 1996.

As it happens, the RNC's very ineptitude may save it from having to pay up. The original ad promised the million dollars only to the first entrant who could prove Barbour wrong. But the defendants have since discovered there is no way to tell whose letter arrived first because the RNC had no system to log the entries as they came in and, apparently, threw out most of the original letters. Recently the RNC has again shifted tactics- dropping the argument that Barbour was right and claiming that the advertisement was just a parody all along.

But don't feel too bad for the Haley Barbour 22. Some now expect that as the 2000 election nears, the RNC might be more willing to pony up some money for a settlement to avoid the bad publicity of a trial. If not, and the judge denies a RNC motion to dismiss, the case could be headed to trial in the near future.

- Laura Maggi


GeorgeBushBlows.com

Most of us learn the lesson in grade school: sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. Apparently nobody told George W. Bush. With the help of strategist Karl Rove, the Bush camp snatched up all the Internet domain names they could think of that could possibly be used to poke fun at poor, helpless Dubya. Just imagine the all-night brainstorming session that resulted in the purchase of domain names like georgebushblows.com, georgewbushsucks.org, bushsux.org, georgebushbites.com, and bushblows.net- some 200 in all.

There's one cyber-tormentor the Bush campaign hasn't managed to stop. If you click on GWBush.com, you will find a wickedly clever parody site with slogans like "drug-free since 1974" and "hypocrisy with bravado." The site, founded and maintained by Massachusetts computer consultant Zack Exley and backed by the corporate saboteur collective Tmark, looks remarkably like an official site- except for such features as the dribble of white powder below the candidate's nose.

The whole thing has Bush in such a tizzy that he seems to be reconsidering whether the Federal Election Commission (FEC) may have some good uses after all: Bush recently filed an official complaint with the FEC, demanding that Exley post a disclaimer on the site and file a federal expenditures report if he spent more than $250 creating it. But as it happens, the man is scrupulously bipartisan, sponsoring albore.com; as an equal-opportunity lampoonist.

Oddly too, the Bush campaign, having corralled every insulting Web name it could think up, doesn't stash those domain names where no one can find them. Instead, if you click on, say, bushblows.org, you call up the official Bush campaign site.

- Joanna Mareth

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