August 14th, 2002
Naming Rights Sold -- This Time, at High School Field
By Nancy Ryan
Vernon Hills High School stole a play from professional sports teams when officials
needed money to complete the new football stadium. They sold the name to the
$1.8 million facility, which will open in October as Rust-Oleum Field.
The tactic, which raised $100,000 and a few eyebrows, could enter the record
books as the first time a high school stadium in Illinois has been named after
a corporate donor.
It’s the most recent--and some would say one of the most blatant--examples
of the growing commercialism in student sports, as financially strapped schools
increasingly turn to private sponsors for everything from cash to uniforms and
Officials and parents at Vernon Hills and other Illinois high schools argue
that corporate money is a creative alternative to increasing taxes or cutting
programs. The fundraising strategy is acceptable as long as products aren’t
aggressively hawked to students, they say.
But Alex Molnar, director of Arizona State University’s Commercialism in Education
Research Unit, said the Rust-Oleum agreement sets a bad precedent.
"Why isn’t it called Taxpayers’ Stadium?" he said. "Where else
are you going to get a brick-and-mortar stadium worth $1.8 million named after
you for $100,000? Basically what you have is taxpayers subsidizing Rust-Oleum’s
The donation by Rust-Oleum Corp., a Vernon Hills paint manufacturer, helped
pay for the field’s scoreboard, refreshment stand, lights and other amenities.
Under the 20-year agreement, the company’s name will be displayed on a plaque
on a pillar near the entrance to the stadium and in the press room.
The deal, which also requires the company to provide paint to maintain the
field’s outdoor equipment, was viewed as a goodwill gesture, not as a marketing
tool, officials say.
The donation "wasn’t so much for the naming of the field," said Gene
Childers, facilities manager for Rust-Oleum. "It’s our way of giving back
to the community."
The company was approached with the proposal by parents involved in school
"Trust me, this won’t sell one extra can of paint for Rust-Oleum,"
said Vernon Hills parent Richard Friedenberg, who was involved in talks with
But critics worry that schools faced with severe budget shortfalls are becoming
too eager to enter into formal arrangements with companies.
Corporate deals have become so common that educators and business managers
attend conferences to learn how to increase revenue from marketing at schools,
according to a 2000 study by the federal General Accounting Office.
The naming rights issue might not be as emotionally charged at the high school
level as was the proposal to rename Soldier Field, which the Chicago Bears dropped
after it caused an uproar. But the issue can still cause sharp disagreements
Last month in Naperville, a divided school board approved an agreement that
allows equipment manufacturer Under Armour to hang a banner during Naperville
Central football games. In exchange, the company provided $7,500 worth of T-shirts
that players wear under their shoulder pads.
Osie Davenport, a board member who voted against the contract, was concerned
it might reinforce the message that students should favor one brand over another--usually
the more expensive one.
"It doesn’t support some of the principles we’re trying to teach,"
In Chicago’s public high schools, corporations often sponsor games and are
allowed to hang banners or place ads in programs. Gatorade has donated beverages.
Other companies have given shoes or T-shirts to players, said school spokeswoman
St. Charles East and North High Schools currently list Coca-Cola and Pepsi
as sponsors in programs for games and other events.
Nationally, some schools have pushed the marketing envelope further, again
following the pro sports model. Several years ago the high school in Ravenna,
Ohio, financed a new stadium by selling personal seat licenses for $1,500 each.
In the late 1990s, public schools in Grapevine, Texas, allowed companies to
place signs in the gym and advertise daily on the school TV station for $1,000.
For $5,000, they could advertise on the stadium and on school buses.
More recently, a gym at Costello Elementary School in Brooklawn, N.J., was
named the ShopRite of Brooklawn Gymnasium for a $100,000 donation.
Corporate sponsors don’t get involved just because they want to be nice, said
Marty Hickman, executive director of the Illinois High School Association, which
regulates school sports and other extracurricular programs.
"They’re typically looking for some benefit down the road," he said.
Asked about Rust-Oleum Field, Hickman said he wasn’t aware of any other school
stadium in Illinois named after a corporation. Neither were officials at the
Illinois State Board of Education, spokesman Wade Nelson said.
Even skeptics of increased marketing in schools caution that it’s important
to distinguish between corporate-sponsored scholarships and other long-established
traditions and recent cases where schools sign contracts to serve only one soft
Soft Drink Deals
In 1999, Naperville School District 203 and Aurora East School District 131
were among the first districts in the area to approve exclusive beverage vending
machine contracts with a major distributor.
"There’s a role for business involvement in the classroom, but we and
parents need to be wary when students are a captive audience" for advertising
ploys, said Melinda Anderson, spokeswoman for the National Education Association,
a Washington, D.C.-based teachers union.
Specifically, the association has questioned the appropriateness of exclusive
contracts with beverage companies because their marketing treats children as
consumers rather than as students.
St. Charles North signed an agreement to sell only Pepsi. But except for a
mention of the company in event programs, no banners or other ads are displayed,
said Tom Hernandez, a school spokesman.
"Other than that, you really don’t know there’s this relationship,"
At Naperville Central, officials said their contract with Under Armour covers
only the current football season.
"What we’ve done is exchange some publicity for some merchandise,"
said Marty Bee, the school’s athletic director.
Anne Landgraf, a member of the Vernon Hills school board, which unanimously
approved the Rust-Oleum deal last month, said the new corporate name shouldn’t
be viewed as an marketing device that targets students. It will be limited strictly
to the stadium, she said.
"If the name was in the school building and kids were being bombarded
every day, that would be different," Landgraf said.
Landgraf said no one from the public expressed skepticism about the plan at
board meetings, although she said one or two board members had concerns.
One Vernon Hills parent, Kathy Bold, said that naming the high school field
after Rust-Oleum seemed benign compared with other alternatives.
"It’s better than Budweiser Stadium," she said.