St. Pete Times Forum May Be First Of Many

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Updated at 10:45 a.m. EST

So how does your newspaper refer to an arena located right in your own downtown after your competitor from across the bay puts its name on it? “We will be discussing it, obviously, and reviewing it with our style committee next week,” Amy L. Chown, marketing director of The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune said Thursday, one day after the Ice Palace, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning National Hockey League team, was renamed the “St. Pete Times Forum.”

One close observer of naming rights, Bill Chipps, senior editor of Chicago-based “IEG Sponsorship Report,” estimated the price of the naming at $2 million a year. “Obviously, that’s ballpark,” he said. Chipps added: “I gather this is right in The Tampa Tribune‘s back yard — that’s quite a coup.”

The St. Petersburg Times not only became the first newspaper to place its name on a major sports arena — it also set off a debate in journalism circles. Not surprisingly, the Tribune was among the most critical. In a memo to staffers, Tribune President and Publisher Steve Weaver said his paper had been offered naming rights five years ago — and turned the offer down because that would interfere with its ethical obligation to cover news objectively: “By putting their name on a building, there is an implied endorsement of the events … at the venue including concerts, political rallies, religious functions, etc.”

Nonsense, the Times said, emphasizing in its announcement that the 12-year naming deal, which includes an option for a 12-year extension, “will have no effect on coverage” of the arena’s events. The paper also noted that it would not be sharing any revenue from the arena, unlike the controversial 1999 deal between the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center.

But even a St. Pete Times metro columnist, Mary Jo Melone, expressed irritation that Times President and Editor Paul Tash would not reveal financial terms of the renaming. “As a journalist, I know that’s a question he’d want answered,” she wrote. The paper has long been a champion of open records.

(After press time Friday, the Times decided to reveal the cost of the deal: $33 million over 12 years, according to the Associated Press.)

More journalists are likely to face these issues, because more newspapers will be buying naming rights, Chipps predicts. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen newspapers taking on bigger [venue] names,” Chipps said.

Among them is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which replaced Coca-Cola as the name of an outdoor concert venue in Burgettstown, Pa. Post-Gazette Editor John G. Craig Jr. said Post-Gazette Pavilion gives wide exposure to the paper without raising ethical concerns.

Naming rights are an exceptionally efficient marketing device, said Paulette Stracuzzi, event marketing manager for the San Francisco Chronicle, which two years ago put its name on a seasonal outdoor venue in Concord, Calif. When IEG measured the marketing effectiveness of Chronicle Pavilion, Stracuzzi said, “The cost/benefit ratio was like 1/22.”

In addition to numerous media mentions — all paid for by concert and event advertisers — the Chronicle uses the pavilion to push circulation by contacting ticket buyers, sampling and selling copies on-site, and even offering subscription coupons on carriers used for drinks and food.

Newspapers don’t have to buy an entire venue. As a “founding partner,” The Denver Post put its name inside the Pepsi Center sports arena — on a club-level bar called The Denver Post Newsroom.

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