December 12th, 2008

Corporate Sponsorship Creates Slippery Slope for Colleges

By Gary Thorne
USA Today

Thursday’s USA TODAY included a story from the IMG Intercollegiate Athletes Forum in New York about a panel that dealt with trends in financing and fundraising for college sports.

Kentucky AD Mitch Barnhart met the issue head-on saying in the article that in these economic times colleges might have to look to greater corporate sponsorship in many areas, including naming rights to arenas and signage deals.

Barnhart said Kentucky is investigating the feasibility of corporate sponsorship for three major construction projects, including the replacement of Rupp Arena.

He said the concept is not new to college campuses. “It’s generally done in the name of a donor, an individual or a person who’s said, ‘I want to do this for the School of Business or the School of Engineering or a library.’”

He went on to say, “The minute it goes corporate, everybody has a little bit of a panic attack and says, ‘We’ve sold out.’”

Barnhart went on. “If you put a corporate name on a library, does that change the books inside of it? No, it’s still a place where students go to study and students go to gain knowledge. It didn’t change a thing. I’d say the same thing about an athletic facility.”

Barnhart certainly raises an issue of the day in college sports financing. Maybe such corporate involvement doesn’t change a thing. Maybe.

Or maybe it changes everything.

Tough economic times such as these create tough problems and opportunities for the opportunists who see a chance to cash in where there was no such opportunity before. Colleges, go slowly on this one.

Businesses are in business to make money. Individuals may give for the sake of giving, wanting to leave a legacy. Businesses give for the publicity and the cash, no matter how much they may care about the team.

If that book or speaker in the library involves the issue of prayer in schools or any other combustible issue and stirs publicity about the X Corp library, you don’t think X Corp is going to be at the university door looking to “correct” matters?

That’s why such corporate involvement has long been properly frowned on.

Sports sponsorships may be no different.

Let’s go to Wrigley Field. Part of the current mega scandal surrounding Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich concerns the home of the Cubs.

The Tribune Company, which owns the Cubs and is trying to sell the team and the field, is cited in the Federal complaint filed against the governor, as needing “ the proceeds from the sale of the Cubs to pay down debt associated with the Tribune Company acquisition.”

According to the complaint, the Tribune Company “explored the possibility of obtaining financial assistance from the Illinois Finance Authority ("IFA") relating to the financing or sale of Wrigley Field.”

The IFA exists to support the governor in economic development. The IFA members are appointed by the governor.

The Tribune Company, at the same time it sought IFA assistance, was calling in Tribune newspaper editorials for the legislature to investigate whether articles of impeachment should be sought against the governor. Guess what? The governor was not thrilled.

Thus began, according to the complaint, based on wiretapped phone records, a number of calls among the governor and/or his representative, Deputy Governor A (as described in the complaint) and a “Tribune Financial Advisor.”

The governor’s office, according to the complaint, wanted members of the Tribune editorial staff to be removed in return for the governor advancing the Tribune request for IFA help.

The complaint cites the governor as telling his advisor John Harris (also charged in the complaint) to “tell the Tribune Financial Advisor ‘this is a serious thing now’ and that the only ‘way around it’ is around the legislature and that the Tribune is ‘trumping up impeachment discussions because I do this stuff to get things done.’”

The complaint says Harris talked with the Tribune Financial Advisor who talked with the Tribune owner. Harris reported back to the governor that the Tribune owner “‘got the message and is very sensitive to the issue.’”

The complaint says, “Harris stated that according to the Tribune Financial Advisor, there will be ‘certain corporate reorganizations and budget cuts coming and, reading between the lines, he’s going after that section.’”

The governor is quoted in the complaint as responding, “Oh, that’s fantastic.”

It appears such cuts on the Tribune editorial board never occurred, the complaint coming against the governor about a month after these cited phone calls were occurring.

What has all of this to do with the idea of corporate naming rights and signage for college sports? Substitute the name of you favorite college for the Tribune and a corporate sponsor for the governor and just pick the issues a corporate sponsor might want to have a say in when it comes to college sports.

Business is about return on investment. Donations are not. Corporate sponsorships are business deals. Businesses want things run their way.

Add to that the likelihood that some individuals making corporate sponsorship decisions may well have a fan interest in the team, to include the overwrought “vicarious living through sports” complex, and you have created a tinderbox.

Kentucky will be but one of a number of schools likely to explore corporate naming and signage deals. The longer the recession, the more colleges will consider it.

Beware. The economic downturn will end. Damage from increased corporate involvement might not.

Playing for a while in an older arena with a scoreboard with a few light bulbs out and too few luxury boxes is a small price to pay for a college maintaining control what’s left of it over its sports programs.


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