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From Toronto, a familiar cry on naming rights

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Al D June 22, 2011 - 9:05 am

How about we create (or extend) BID’s to improve subway infrastructure or “Adopt-a-Station” program instead.

Edward Skira June 22, 2011 - 11:06 am

A $774 million budget gap yet property taxes this year went up 0%. New right wing mayor thinks he can cut “gravy” as he calls it all the while cutting taxes. Yet he took a $300 million budget SURPLUS from last year and, instead of banking it for this year, immediately spent it. That’s the brilliant right wing math. From surplus to deficit, taxes cut or frozen and now they expect McDonalds to pay for it?

SEAN June 22, 2011 - 11:19 am

Please correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t make statements reguarding transit should only serve the city & not the region as a whole?

SEAN June 22, 2011 - 11:25 am

Please correct me if I’m wrong, didn’t the mayor make statements reguarding that transit should only serve the city & not the region as a whole?

Scott E June 22, 2011 - 12:22 pm

As much as the corporate naming rights “cash cow” appears to have dried up, it’s ironic to see that Rutgers University just sold their football stadium’s name for the next 10 years to earn them $6.5 million.

Alon Levy June 22, 2011 - 1:31 pm

Rutgers has a funding crisis that’s even worse than for urban transit. The state regulates tuition and it has a lot of tenured faculty; it’s had to scrounge money to keep operating ever since the recession started.

An MTA policy – but no deals – for subway station naming rights :: Second Ave. Sagas July 21, 2013 - 11:19 pm

[…] just €1 million a year while Boston has unsuccessfully put its station names up for sale. Austin, Toronto, New Jersey, D.C. and Chicago all want someone to pay for their stations, but very few people are […]


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