As transit agencies across the country have struggled to find adequate amounts of money over the past few years, the promise of lucrative naming rights deals hovers at the edges of any discussion. On a practical level, our own MTA secured $200,000 a year for 20 years to append the Barclays Center moniker to the Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. stop, and in Philadelphia, AT&T paid out $5 million for a five-year deal to completely rename SEPTA’s Pattison Ave. stop. Beyond that, naming rights have remained a mirage.
Across the country — as a simple Google Search shows — transit agencies have been seduced by the allure of dollars for names. Boston has explored potential naming rights deals and so has Austin. Dallas is currently working to market its stations, and Chicago has tried various approaches with limited success. Apple paid to overhaul a CTA stop near one of its Windy City stores, but the CTA hasn’t shopped naming rights. Simply put, there isn’t a lot of money in these agreements.
That doesn’t, however, stop potential politicians from trying. Tom Allon, the CEO of Manhattan Media and potential GOP mayoral candidate (that is, if Joe Lhota doesn’t step in), penned a piece during Thanksgiving week calling upon the MTA to sell station naming rights. He wrote:
The MTA runs more than 400 subway stations and more than 5,000 bus stops. That’s very valuable — and visible — real estate that should be monetized. If we sold the naming rights to each bus stop for, say, an average of $5,000 per month and subway stations for an average of $10,000 per month (based on my own experience and estimates), that would generate $360 million per year in new revenue — the lion’s share of the current $400 million deficit that is precipitating the fare increase proposal.
Would you rather pay an extra $120 per year to commute or start referring to the Times Square subway station as “Pepsi Times Square”? Not a tough choice for me, especially since our transit system is already covered in ads.
Moreover, we routinely sell naming rights in the private sector to stadiums (Citi Field in Queens, Barclays Center in Brooklyn), hospital wings (NYU’s Langone Medical Center), university buildings (the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, also at NYU) and other institutions. For that matter, now that the Barclays Center is open, the subway station beneath it has been renamed “Atlantic Avenue – Barclays Center.” Nobody seems outraged by the change so far. Sure, some will call this crass, charging that we are commercializing some of our public spaces. However, such criticisms would be misplaced.
In my mind, privatizing the names of stations is a small price to pay to keep fares down for working-class New Yorkers, who depend on mass transit each day to get to their jobs, at a time when median wages are not rising nearly as fast as the cost of living here.
Allon went on to suggest a series of (unfortunate) names: There’s Time Warner Marcy Ave., Nike Union Square, and Ray’s Pizza 68th and Broadway. No word if he meant Famous Original Ray’s or Ray’s Original Pizza.
If only it were that easy though. Unfortunately for Allon, it takes two interested parties to complete a naming rights deal. Someone has to want to sell those rights, and someone else has to want to buy them. The second someone else hasn’t been as forthcoming as the first. For starters, transit infrastructure does not have the best reputation in the world, and may companies are hesitant to append their names to something not safe. Imagine if this past Monday’s horrific incident had happened at M&M’s 49th St. station instead of just the 49th St. station.
Furthermore, will anyone really pay $10,000 per month? The MTA’s only current naming rights deal is for $16,666 per month, but it’s also at a station that saw a pre-Barclays Center average of 33,000 passengers per day. Marcy Ave., used in Allon’s example, has a daily ridership of around 11,000, and a large number of stations see well under 5,000 passengers per day. Allon’s revenue projections aren’t just optimistic; they’re flat-out impossible to attain.
It’s notable that Allon, ostensibly a serious candidate for mayor, is talking transit. That’s seemingly more than many of his Democratic counterparts have done so far. But his idea isn’t based in reality. It’s a populist trope with no money behind it. Naming rights aren’t some panacea for funding woes, and the more time politicians spend dallying on the idea, the less time they devote to truly transformative and revenue-generating policies instead.