The naming rights wave has become a plague throughout North America. What started a successful one-off in Philadelphia with AT&T purchasing the rights to SEPTA’s stadium stop has turned into an unobtainable Holy Grail for cash-strapped transit agencies. If they could just convince major companies and big advertisers to pony up dollars for naming rights, all of the financial ills can be cured. Or at least, that’s the thinking.
Over the last year or so, we’ve seen countless cities bring up naming rights deals. Chicago tried to parlay the success of its venture with Apple into a broader attempt to attract corporate sponsors. Austin and New Jersey Transit have mentioned their interest, and Boston too wants to lure in naming partners.
It is, though, just a mirage. Companies don’t draw much power from teaming up with transit agencies that often aren’t very popular in the public mind to stick their names on stations that attract a few thousand folks per day. Still, that won’t stop everyone from trying, and this time, it’s Toronto’s turn.
The story from Canada is frankly hilarious. Toronto has a $774 million budget gap, and it thanks it can close a significant portion of that gap by renaming everything. Never mind that few cities have been able to attract $10 million in naming rights, let alone a few hundred. “As long as it’s called the right name — Spadina McDonald’s, whatever — if it brings in revenue, I honestly don’t believe anyone cares,” City Councillor Doug Ford said.
Toronto officials claim that the TTC is in dire need of both an infusion of cash and some renovations. If private companies want to help out, some will welcome them with open arms. Others, however, seem to recognize the reality of the situation. “There is not big money in them there hills,” Joe Mihevc said. “You need millions of dollars to fix up a subway. It really is not the way we should be naming these public assets.”
The complaints put forward by those in support of the deal in Toronto are the same we’ve heard everywhere. Station names should retain their geographic signifiers as both tourists, locals and everyone in between need to be able to navigate the system. If corporations are willing to work out deals within those parameters involving significant amounts of cash, TTC officials are certainly willing to listen. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
The problem, as it always is, boils down to the dollars. Naming rights deals are over. The Nationals, playing in a new baseball stadium in DC, haven’t found a corporate naming partner in four years. The Meadowlands closer to home are still just that. On a more local level, authorities often find it difficult to scrounge up those willing to commit to more ambitious display ads or wrapped subway cars. Naming rights are rarely even on the table.
For all of the talk of naming rights as the next great thing, the largest deals barely deliver revenue. Barclays will append its name to Atlantic/Pacific for a few hundred thousand dollars a year over 20 years. AT&T’s deal with SEPTA runs for a few million over five years. Other than that, politicians and transit planners are wasting their time and shirking their duties. Across the country, officials should try to find true and steady sources of revenue. Naming rights just represent an idea that wasn’t very good in the first place and hasn’t led to any significant amounts of money.