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From sports events to book characters, all is for sale

What's in a name? Mostly, it's money

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Never mind the old question of what's in a name. These days, it's how much for a name?

It used to be simple. A corporation bought a stadium or a football bowl game for umpteen million bucks and renamed it after itself. Thus did the Peach Bowl become the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and now finally just the Chick-fil-A Bowl hold the peach.

But the idea of planting your name somewhere, permanently, has spread throughout society like cultural kudzu not just for companies, but for individuals. In Stephen King's new No. 1 best-seller, "Cell," one of the characters, Ray Huizenga, is named after a real person. His sister Pam bought the rights in an eBay auction last year. (It cost her $21,000, and proceeds went to the First Amendment Project.)

Hey Ray, meet Macy Baby. Macy, a new gorilla at Zoo Atlanta, is named for the Macy's department store chain, which won naming rights in an auction last year for between $10,000 and $20,000.

"The world is becoming increasingly commodified," says Allen Tullos, associate professor of American studies at Emory University. "Everything is for sale. There's this impulse people have: 'Can I buy some immortality here?' "

Honoring financial benefactors may be as old as civilization, but people and companies keep coming up with new wrinkles. A few recent examples:

For the past few years, a German company called Biopat has been selling naming rights to newly discovered species. (Scientists who discover the species donate the rights, and the money goes to conservation groups.) Husbands have named flowers after their wives as a romantic gift, although most species named are insects. Ellen DeGeneres tried to win an auction last year to name a new monkey species after herself but was outbid by the big-spending Las Vegas casino Golden Palace.

In November, the North Texas town of Clark (population 125), changed its name to Dish to get free satellite TV service.

The Kentucky Derby announced last month it will now be known as the Kentucky Derby Sponsored by Yum Brands. (Yum owns KFC and Taco Bell.) That was better than other possible Derby sponsorships, some people suggested, such as Elmer's Glue or Alpo.

"It's a shame that the Run for the Roses has been degraded into a run for junk food," says Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, an anti-commercialization advocacy group. "Next year, will the thoroughbreds run at Taco Bell Downs?"

The trend toward selling naming rights to anything in the public sphere arenas, parks, even school gymnasiums needs to be resisted, argues Ruskin, whose Commercial Alert monitors commercialization in society. "We're turning our public properties into billboards for corporate self-promotion," he says.

But Craig Depken, who teaches sports economics at the University of Texas, says buying naming rights is just "another form of advertising."

Adds John Reddish, president of Advent Management International, a consultancy firm: "It's seen as self-serving, but demonstrates a commitment to the community."

Ruskin draws a distinction, however, between a company paying a city to change the name of a stadium and an individual paying a novelist for naming rights to a character. The latter is becoming increasingly popular as a fund-raiser. In addition to King, John Grisham and Nora Roberts have done it, as has mystery writer Kathy Hogan Trocheck.

The city of Houston discovered that selling names can have a downside when Enron, the company that bought the rights to the Astros' stadium, entered its period of very public troubles. It's now Minute Maid Park.

More recently, the trend has been for new arenas to be built and naming rights sold right from the get-go, without any renaming to rankle fans. The Dutch company Philips is paying Time Warner an estimated $168 million over 20 years to call the home of the Hawks and Thrashers, as well as many rock concerts, Philips Arena.

But with all that, it's unclear whether any of this renaming benefits the companies that are paying for it. "There is scant evidence that other than NASCAR a sponsorship correlates with increased sales . . . relative to other forms of advertising," says the University of Texas' Depken.

On the other hand, if you name a dung beetle after a loved one, your return on your investment transcends mere finance.

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