Benefits of Corporate Naming Rights

A simple suggestion for alleviating some of our convention center debt

Giving directions to the Bijou Theatre got a lot easier last month with the installation of the venue's new sign and marquee. Before, I'd tell people that it was just past the giant surface parking lot, and across from the tall mirrored buildings. Now the blue glow of the sign can be pointed out from blocks away.

When it first went up, I wasn't sure about it. I think that, having grown accustomed to the Tennessee Theatre's multi-story glitzy sign, the Bijou's emblem seemed a little demure. But with the addition of the new marquee, it calls attention to the smaller venue quite nicely.

I have to admit, I did wince a little when I first saw the marquee. I hadn't expected the prominent corporate logo and title "U.S. Cellular Stage" atop its front. I know that the company has been an eminent supporter of the Bijou's renaissance with well over $150,000 in sponsorship. And I know that without that support, there probably wouldn't be a functioning Bijou Theatre to hang that marquee on. I've just never been quite comfortable about corporate naming rights.

I'm not sure why. Corporations have been buying up our cultural landscape for decades. In 1953, Anheuser-Busch lost their first bid at renaming the St. Louis Cardinal's home field from "Sportsman's Park" to "Budweiser Stadium." The reigning baseball commissioner put the brakes on that one. But the brewer shifted strategies and went for "Busch Memorial Stadium," using the name of one of the company's founders, and it succeeded. And in doing so, it triumphed in putting the cart before the horse. They immediately proceeded to introduce a new beer called "Busch Bavarian Beer" (now simply "Busch Beer") to the market.

Since then corporate names have been blossoming on everything from arenas to municipal transportation systems. There are even "sub-naming" rights such as the "AT&T Pavilion at the Wachovia Center" in Philadelphia.

Times are hard. Not just for individuals, but for venues as well. And a shot of corporate capital can mean life or death in some cases. And Knoxville itself is no exception. The city is laboring under a substantial debt, much of which can be traced to a single source.

According to the city's 2008 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, "80 percent of the total government liabilities are in long-term debt outstanding. Of long-term debt, approximately $144.2 million, or 69 percent, is related to debt issued to finance the convention center complex."

The report's thin sugar-coating that "the performance of the new Convention Center has improved in the past two years, which will lower the expected operating loss on the facility" does little to ameliorate the fact that while it generated nearly $6.5 million in revenues, its expenses came in at over $21 million.

That's substantially short of the mark Mayor Bill Haslam is shooting for. According to a November 2007 News Sentinel article, he said "our goal is to break even" while simultaneously acknowledging that that's not the case for most convention centers.

It was during the administration of Mayor Victor Ashe that, as the financial report puts it, "local government leaders deemed it necessary to build a new convention center to take advantage of Knoxville's unique geographic location." And among the chief supporters of the idea was local business leader — and father of our current mayor — Pilot Oil founder "Big" Jim Haslam.

As such, I think that the company he founded, which stands as one of Knoxville's premier corporate citizens, deserves first shot at naming rights for our convention center. I sort of like the ring of "Pilot Convention Center." And I like the idea of having one of the most vocal boosters for building the facility putting up some money to cover the substantial debt that the convention center now imposes on our city.

If skyscrapers and sports venues are any indication, the deal could net millions toward the bottom line of the center. And no one more deserves the opportunity than "Big" Jim Haslam's Pilot.

A few weeks back, just before enjoying an amazing performance by The Necks on the "U.S. Cellular Stage" at the Bijou Theatre, I was still grimacing a little at the marquee. But it is a sign of its time. The phone company deserves some acknowledgement for the part it's played, and continues to play, in supporting the theater.

Quoting from Pilot's website: "The company is committed to the betterment of the quality of life for all Knoxvillians through leadership and philanthropic efforts." I don't think any of my fellow taxpayers would mind if they threw a little of that effort toward alleviating the debt we're all under. And I don't know anyone who would mind sacrificing the name "Knoxville Convention Center" for the sake of doing so.