Meltdown likely to force arenas to change names

First the bursting of the dot-com bubble in the 1990s, then the accounting scandals earlier this decade, forced ballparks and arenas around the country to change their names. Enron Field became Minute Maid Park, and names such as PSINet Stadium and CMGI Field vanished.

Now, the Wall Street meltdown is creating its own identity crisis for arenas and teams that bear the names of financial companies that are suddenly disappearing or in distress.

The Wachovia Center in Philadelphia and WaMu theaters at Madison Square Garden and in Seattle are among the venues whose names face an uncertain future.

Similarly, players on England's storied Manchester United soccer team wear the AIG name on their jerseys, advertising a company that fell so deep into financial trouble that the U.S. government took control of it.

Some corporate names – Washington Mutual, for one – could vanish from Wall Street altogether. In other cases, the public and stockholders could begin to wonder why these struggling companies are tying up scarce funds on multimillion-dollar sports sponsorship deals.

As a result, some arenas might see a name change.

“I would think that would be the top order of the day to get that switched over,” said Rob Vogel, president of the Bonham Group, which helps broker sponsorship and naming-rights deals. “It's in everyone's best interests to get that rebranded as quickly as possible.”

When Enron Corp. collapsed in a spectacular case of accounting fraud in late 2001, the Houston Astros were quick to scrub the company's name from the team's ballpark, Enron Field. It was rechristened Minute Maid Park within months.

Most naming-rights contracts provide for such a switch. Although each agreement is different, the details – and cost – are usually left to whoever acquires the sponsoring company, said Dick Sherwood, president of Front Row Marketing Services, which helps negotiate such deals.

If Citigroup Inc., which agreed to buy Wachovia Corp.'s banking operations Monday, were to change the name of the Wachovia Center, the home of the Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers, it could cost about $1 million to install new signs, issue employees new uniforms and design new logos, Sherwood said.

Any new name on the Wachovia Center would be the fourth since 1994, following a series of bank mergers.

“We've been going through this for years, because banks have been sold and bought at a pretty rapid pace anyway,” said Sherwood, whose office is in the building.