As my Brighton Beach-bound B train departed DeKalb Avenue last night, the conductor mangled the next stop. “Barclays Center, Atlantic-Pacific,” he said, promoting the corporate sponsorship while restoring the station complex’s former name to what many consider it to be the rightful position. I chuckled at the name and realized that $200,000 a year doesn’t go that far. It is but a drop in the bucket as far as the MTA’s bottom line is concerned, and yet it seems to represent the pinnacle of subway corporate sponsorship in New York City.
Now, in this age of transit austerity, naming rights and creative corporate partnerships seem to be the ideas that just won’t die. Every now and then some state legislature is urging his or her local transit agency to go out and find some corporate sponsors. They wonder how hard it can really be. After all, sports teams and non-profits do this all the time.
If only life and the advertising industry were that easy. Transit agencies though do not carry positive connotations as sports stadiums do. People scorn the subways and look down upon the MTA. Thus, transit naming rights are a delicate matter for any corporation, and the executives in charge know it. Barclays was willing to pony up the bucks because the arena is a destination atop the old Atlantic Ave./Pacific St. station. For everyone else, the equation tilts toward no investment.
That said, the effort to secure these dollars goes ever onward. Yesterday, the Madrid Metro announced a three-year, €3 million deal to rename an entire subway line for Vodafone, the European cell phone carrier. As part of the agreement, all signs and maps in the system’s 272 stations and 2311 cars will include the Vodafone logo along with the Line 2 and Sol station names. Recorded announcements will include the name, and Vodafone will earn some display advertising rights in stations as well.
For Madrid, this figure represents a 10 percent bump in advertising income, but it’s a modest amount at best. In U.S. dollars, the investment is $1.3 million a year for an entire line that sees 122,000 passengers a day. Still, Ignacio González, president of the Community of Madrid, boasted of the deal, “Naming rights are an enormous source of income for the metro. We have another 11 lines and many more stations to offer.” Enormous is all relative.
Closer to home, the Massachusetts Senate wants the MBTA to sell station naming rights, and these politicians seem to think they can out-do Madrid. Their off-the-cuff estimates believe the MBTA can generate $20 million in revenue. It’s unclear over what time period the MBTA would realize should revenue, but this isn’t the first time Massachusetts has pondered such an arrangement. So far, though, no naming rights deals have materialized in Boston, but the politicians press on, undeterred by the fiscal reality.
The promise of naming rights revenue, I’ve long maintained, is a false one that allows politicians to shirk on their responsibilities to transit agencies. Instead of finding long-term, sustainable funding sources, politicians point fingers at transit agencies that simply cannot sell undesirable or less-than-lucrative naming rights to their transit assets. Thus, transit systems do not get paid, and transit agencies do not enjoy progressive policies or true investments. Madrid’s $3.9-million, three-year deal should be a warning: The money for transformative transit investments won’t be found in naming rights, and the sooner politicians who control the purse strings come to grips with that reality, the better off the transit riding public will be.