By: Mark Fitzgerald
Proliferation of sponsored sports events is testing
newspaper editors’ patience; what was once the Sun Bowl
now is the John Hancock Financial Services Bowl sp.
AT THE STAR Tribune of Minneapolis, the Virginia Slims women’s tennis tournament easily makes the grade. The USF&G Sugar Bowl is no problem.
Even the Pouland Weed Eater Independence Bowl is acceptable on first reference ? although only on first reference.
But what really gives Star Tribune editors heartburn is a certain auto race sponsored by a certain restaurant chain.
“The Hooters 500 ? that’s one we really struggle with,” said executive sports editor Julie Engebrecht.
“We’ll call it that because that’s what the name is,” she added. “But we don’t splash the name around in the headline.”
Newspaper sports editors everywhere are facing more of these dilemmas as corporations increase their sports title sponsorships ? and change the names of once-venerable competitions into tongue-twisting, lead-busting abominations such as the John Hancock Financial Services Bowl.
Once upon a time, that college football classic was known simply as the Sun Bowl.
Indeed, newspapers and college football fans would probably still refer to it as the Sun Bowl ? if Hancock hadn’t insisted that the bowl drop the name “Sun” entirely as a condition of renewing its expensive title sponsorship.
Hancock insisted on that condition to “force the hands of editors inclined to omit sponsor names from event coverage,” noted a report last spring by International Events Group.
IEG is a 13-year-old, Chicago-based company that researches and reports on corporate sponsorships.
IEG surveyed 23 of the 30 largest-circulation daily newspapers in the United States and Canada for its report, and found editors split over how to handle title sponsorships.
A dozen newspapers are willing to publish the entire official name of an event, but only on first reference.
That, for instance, is the basic policy at the Star Tribune, Engebrecht said.
Another eight papers say they “avoid mentioning sponsors whenever possible,” the IEG study said.
About 20 papers have general guidelines, but only four ? the Star Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune and Philadelphia Inquirer ? have written policies, IEG said.
Symbolizing this ambiguity is the Associated Press, which told IEG that its policy has “flip-flopped a few times since the ’70s.”
“For a while, we went out of our way to avoid mentioning sponsors,” Susan Welch, AP’s director of corporate communications told the IEG Sponsorship Report newsletter.
“In the mid-’80s, we tried to look at things from the reader’s point of view,” she added. “If an event was renamed by the sponsor, we’d use the original name. Now, our policy is that if the title sponsor has been with the event since inception or if an event is otherwise unidentifiable, we’ll include it.”
That policy has paid off for longtime sports sponsors such as the Virginia Slims brand of cigarette. Many papers keep the Virginia Slims or “Slims” reference throughout their stories about the women’s tennis tournaments.
“There, the name has become as associated with tennis as with the cigarette,” the Star Tribune’s Engebrecht said.
On the other hand, some newspapers make a point of excluding sponsors of classic tournaments or events.
“Certain local and national institutions ? such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the World Series, the All-Star game [of any sport], the Triple Crown, the Penn Relays and the Sugar Bowl ? should never have sponsors added to their name,” reads the written guidelines of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Some distinctions can be even more finely drawn, the IEG survey found.
When the gasoline retailer ARCO bought the title sponsorship of the building that houses the Sacramento Kings pro basketball team, the Sacramento Bee refused for a year to call the venue by its new name ? ARCO Arena.
“Now, if an arena has been built from the ground up with a corporate name, such as America West Arena, we’ll use that name,” Bee sports editor Steve Blust told the IEG.
Aware of the aversion to new-bought sponsorships, some corporations take the John Hancock route and change the event name entirely.
In Seattle, for instance, a local restaurant ensured it would get media mentions by naming the city’s Independence Day celebrations “Fourth of JulIvars.”
The change can pay off, IEG said. For example, a year after John Hancock eliminated the “Sun” bowl reference, it “measured a four-fold increase in editorial ID, which it valued at $5.1 million,” the IEG said.
However, title sponsors are guaranteed regular and frequent newspaper mentions in one circumstance: when a newspaper itself sponsors an event.
Conversely, the sponsoring paper is virtually assured that area papers will not use the full event name.
Not surprisingly, IEG argues that newspapers should run sponsorship titles. Excising titles can be counterproductive, the company says.
“By crediting titles sponsors of new events but not established ones, journalists encourage sponsors to bypass their community’s most important annual traditions,” an IEG statement says. “By mentioning sponsors of sports but not of the arts, journalists discourage sponsorship of the least commercial properties.”
Finally, IEG says, “By withholding sponsor names, journalists deprive fans of the ability to vote with their wallets for corporations which support their favorite events and causes.”