By: Rachel La Corte, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The St. Petersburg Times will pay more than $33 million over 12 years for the rights to rename a hockey rink for the newspaper, according to terms released Friday after questions were raised about the deal.
The Tampa Bay Lighting hockey team and the Times initially decided to keep the terms of Tuesday’s agreement private. Both said the arena would be the only major sporting venue in the country named after a newspaper.
“Like most business contracts of such scope it had a confidentiality clause,” said Paul Tash, editor and president of the Times. “The partners had to check with each other before they could release it. The Lightning checked with us and we had no objection at all.”
The Times‘ contract with the professional hockey team renames the Ice Palace to the St. Pete Times Forum. The arena is in Tampa, across Tampa Bay from St. Petersburg on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The newspaper will pay $2.1 million the first year, with a 3% increase each year, plus $250,000 worth of advertising each year. Over 12 years, the deal is worth more than $33 million, including advertising. The deal includes an option for another 12 years, which would be worth an additional $52.7 million.
The deal has caused controversy, not only with their competition in Tampa, but with the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit training school for journalists that has a controlling interest in the Times.
“From a business standpoint it may make lots of sense for the Times to take this significant marketing step and a competitive thrust into Tampa,” said Bob Steele, director of ethics programs at the Poynter. “Journalistically, it raises a number of questions. The Times is in the position of reporting on itself as the nameholder of the arena.”
Tash said the paper would not let its business considerations affect its news judgment. “We’ll be careful going forward to avoid any appearance or hint of conflict,” he said.
In an e-mail on Poynter’s Web site, Steve Weaver, publisher and president of the rival Tampa Tribune, said his newspaper had an opportunity to purchase naming rights five years ago but declined.
“By putting their name on a building, there is an implied endorsement of the events which are hosted at the venue, including concerts, political rallies, religious functions, etc.,” Weaver wrote. “And, there will be ethical questions about maintaining objectivity to cover issues associated with a publicly funded facility when one has a vested interest in its success.”
The Tribune, like the Times, sponsors other organizations and events. But Weaver said the Tribune‘s own sponsorship deal with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers football team is different because it is one of 16 sponsors.
The Hillsborough County Commission, which includes Tampa, also pressed for release of the contract details. The commission is considering a $3 ticket surcharge to help pay off debt used to finance the arena, which was built in 1996.
A number of newspapers and media groups have ownership stakes in professional sports franchises. The Tribune Co. owns the Chicago Cubs, The New York Times Co. has a minority interest in the Boston Red Sox, and Gannett’s Arizona Republic is an investor in the Arizona Diamondbacks.
According to an earlier statement, the deal has no revenue-sharing components and will not affect the paper’s relationship with any of its advertisers.
Al Cross, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said the perception of readers may be affected nonetheless. “Newspapers are businesses, and if they want to put their names on things that is well within in their rights,” he said. “But when they enter contractual agreements with teams they cover, readers will question their independence.”