US college criticised over Taco Bell Arena

July 16, 2004

American universities are courting controversy by selling naming rights to corporations to pay for major construction projects.

The basketball arena at Boise State University has been renamed for the Taco Bell fast-food chain, whose logo will appear above the entrances in exchange for a $4 million (£2.1 million) gift. The multibillion-dollar cable television company Comcast has paid $25 million to put its name on a new basketball arena at the University of Maryland; the corporation's logo will even appear on the playing floor. And a new sports complex at Boston University will be part of the John Hancock Student Village, named for an insurance company that paid $20 million for the honour.

Long-term corporate sponsorship deals are important because they can be leveraged to secure loans for the construction of a new arena.

"The revenue generated from this sort of naming opportunity will certainly contribute to the continued and long-term success of our athletic programme," Bob Kustra, Boise State president, said of the deal to rename its stadium the Taco Bell Arena.

But some alumni derided the agreement, calling the school "Fast-Food University". Dennis Howard of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center said the high-profile naming arrangements were likely to attract criticism.

He said college athletes were being commercialised far beyond what could have been envisaged about the original role of athletics on a university campus. "It offers considerable fodder to those who are very critical about the big-business nature of collegiate athletics."

"It has a percolating effect. They're transferring the concept from the professional sports world into the collegiate arena," Dr Howard said.

As university budgets were squeezed, he said, athletic departments had had to become increasingly financially independent. "Now many of them operate essentially, at least from an organisational perspective, as auxiliary enterprises on university campuses."

At the same time, there is pressure to build or improve facilities.

University sports arenas today "are state of the art, with all the bells and whistles you'll see in the grandest professional arenas in North America", Dr Howard said.

The first corporation to buy naming rights to university sports stadiums was Carrier, a company that makes air conditioners. It paid $2.75 million to rename the arena at Syracuse University the Carrier Dome in 1979. But such arrangements were rare until recently.

"It was at the end of the 1990s that university athletic directors began to see the phenomenal growth in naming rights deals being done in professional sports arenas around the country and began to see the opportunity to translate the financial benefits of those arrangements to their own campuses," Dr Howard said.

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