What"s in a Name? A Whole Lot of Money

It's been so long since I've been to a Philadelphia Phillies game that the best I can do is tell you it was probably 15 years ago. I'm not sure who played for them back then; the only thing I remember is coming home with a souvenir batting glove. They were never my team, the Phillies. I was always a Yankee fan. When you grow up in North Jersey, being a Yankee fan is basically a birthright. Literally. My brother and I got baseball jackets from our grandparents when we were kids. I got the Yanks because I was older; he got the Mets. If I hadn't been born four years before him, I'd be a Keith Hernandez fan.

But anyway, since I live in the Philly area now'and since I no longer get the YES Network'I decided I'd go ahead and start following the Phillies. The way I figure, what the hell'they're an NL team. It's not like they compete with the Yankees anyway.

So my wife and I went out and bought Phillies t-shirts (hers is Jimmy Rollins; mine is Jim Thome), and invited our families to join us two weeks ago as we attended a Saturday game. The Phillies took on the Mets that evening and thrashed them, seven to nothing. I think my brother was the only person to go home unhappy. Sucker. But we were all winners, really, because what were supposed to be nosebleed seats'in Section 310, the only place I could get nine tickets'turned out to be a wonderful place to watch a game.

The Phillies have a new stadium, you see, which just opened up this year. I'm told there isn't a bad seat in the house. I'm inclined to believe it. And I'm also inclined to go back a few times next year to find out for myself. I rather enjoyed the game that evening; I think I'll get into this whole being-a-Phillies-fan thing.

But here's what I find funny about that new stadium of theirs: It's nice and new, and very clean, with fairly snug seating and just the right atmosphere for that classic, magical baseball feel. Someone put a lot of thought into building this building. And then they went and named it Citizens Bank Park.

Say it out loud with me, will you? Citizens Bank Park. Doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, now, does it? You can practically taste that magical baseball feeling falling out of your mouth and onto the floor.

It sounds so cold, so callous, so' corporate.

It's a jarring reminder that games aren't just games, but business ventures. And players aren't just players, but businessmen'like dear old dad.

I have to admit the business side of baseball bothers me sometimes. But usually only when the players threaten to go on strike. And even then it bothers me more because they're a union than anything else. The more I think about it, though, the more I begin to make peace with the fact that pro sports are just businesses. I used to want to believe my favorite players played for the love of the game. But how realistic was that? These guys have kids; their kids need to eat. And that doesn't mean some'or even most'players don't love the game. But let's face it: If they played for love instead of money, they wouldn't be playing at all. At least not professionally. They'd have desk jobs just like the rest of us. And where's the fun in that?

Now, don't get me wrong: I'll take Boston's Fenway over San Diego's PETCO Park any day of the week with a double-header on Sunday. I think calling Comiskey Park 'U.S. Cellular Field" is an absolute travesty for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I prefer Verizon. ("Can you hear me now?") But there are good things about stadium naming rights, and we might as well learn to focus on them'I mean, it's not like this practice is going anywhere anytime soon.

Take Philadelphia, for example. Here's a city firmly entrenched in the naming rights routine. Citizens Bank Park is named for Citizens Bank, which paid nearly $60 million for the privilege. Lincoln Financial paid twice that amount and then some to name the Eagles' new football stadium Lincoln Financial Field. And finally, the 76ers and Flyers play in the nearby Wachovia Center, which used to be the First Union Center, while the Wachovia Spectrum, which used to be the First Union Spectrum, hosts some team called the Phantoms. There are so many banks in this parking lot, you'd think it's one big ad for the FDIC.

And it's like this pretty much everywhere you look in professional sports these days. In baseball alone there are seven stadiums named after companies having to do with financial-type stuff. Three more are named after beers. And, yes, this can make even a packed house feel empty. Yes, it can make them seem heartless. Sports fans like to think of stadiums less like buildings and more like living organisms; only names like Candlestick Park and Camden Yards seem to accomplish that. But has the trend towards stadium naming rights really changed anything? How is naming two ballparks after orange juice companies'Minute Maid in Houston; Tropicana in Tampa Bay'any different than Chicago's beloved Wrigley Field, which, for all intents and purposes, is named after gum?

Big, gaudy billboards and neon signs represent what might be seen as the undesirable side of capitalism. No one wants to see ads for Spider-Man 2 on the bases at ballgames. No one wants to see ads for online casinos on pro boxers' backs. It's ugly, intrusive, and annoying. And it's hard to think of sports as the distraction they're supposed to be when they constantly remind you of the daily grind. But imagine the world of sports without corporate sponsorships. What are the alternatives? Ticket prices ten times more outrageous than they already are? State-run athletics like they have in Communist Cuba? It's that, or probably no world of sports at all.

I remember when they sold the naming rights for the Brendan Byrne Arena'home of the New Jersey Nets and Devils'a couple of years ago. It's been known as the Continental Airlines Arena ever since. And at first I thought this was garbage; I hated it. But now I look back and wonder, what did former NJ governor Brendan Byrne ever do for me? Nothing, that's what. His only accomplishment was bringing the Devils to New Jersey. After that, for all I care, he might as well have never existed. But Continental Airlines, on the other hand'they're the only major airline I find consistently satisfying. I flew United and American recently, and neither of them'especially United'were nearly as good. So I guess what I'm trying to say is, Continental Airlines has done more for me than Brendan Byrne.

So maybe the marriage of business and pro sports isn't the end of the world after all. I mean, hell, next to baseball, NASCAR's about as American a sport as you can ask for, and half its fans root for drivers based on their sponsors. And you know what? That's okay. Mark Martin's male fans can come out to the track and cheer for Viagra. To me, this means something's right with the world.

Again, I don't like how commercial pro sports can be. Minute Maid ticket holders need only look back upon their stadium's former name, Enron Field, to tell you corporate sponsorships are transient and ultimately unfulfilling. And to be sure, big business isn't always a good thing'whether it funds pro sports or not. But as long as sports stadiums are publicly owned, the money to fund them will have to come from somewhere. And I say better corporate sponsors than taxpayers. Fans pay enough for tickets, parking, and beer as it is.

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Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column on politics and personal freedoms.  His website is www.readjdm.com