By Any Other (Corporate) Name
Safeco is out at home
We've known for a while now that the Mariners' home field would get a new name by next season. Safeco Insurance's deal for naming rights to the stadium expired at the end of the 2018 season and they were up front about not being interested in extending their association with the facility, so the speculation began in earnest last spring: Which corporate behemoth would step up to replace Safeco and brand their identity all over our beautiful ballpark?
During my time at Mariner games last season, my seatmates and I bandied about a number of possibilities: Costco Field. Starbucks Grounds. Boeing Ballpark. Personally, I was afraid I'd have to endure 20 years of Amazon Prime Park, which would be a slap in the face of independent businesspeople all over Puget Sound.
Turns out, the new sponsor—according to Forbes magazine, anyway—is T-Mobile. Nothing formal has been announced yet; the new lease between the Mariners and the Public Facilities District has to be approved by the King County council before naming rights can officially be granted, and Mariner ownership maintains that no agreement has been finalized. But it appears we'll be seeing branding for "T-Mobile Field" or something similar gracing our favorite summer hangout before long.
The Forbes piece says T-Mobile bought the rights for an annual fee in the neighborhood of $3 million, which is about $1 million more per year than Safeco paid for the rights from 1999-2018. In the world of professional sports, this seems like a low number, but aside from three outliers—the Mets, Braves, and Astros get $21 million/year from Citibank, $10 million/year from Sun Trust Holdings, and $7.4 million/year from Coca-Cola, respectively, to brand their stadia "Citi Field," "SunTrust Park," and "Minute Maid Park"—this is in line with other existing MLB stadium naming deals, which range from approximately $1 million to $5 million annually.
Which prompts the question, why do so many teams insist on selling their stadium's name? If all you get from letting your ballpark be a billboard for some other corporation is the salary of one journeyman middle reliever, why bother? Straight-up greed? "Hey," you might say, "three million bucks is three million bucks." True, but it's not without risk. "Enron Field" didn't play well for very long. The sponsor gets direct and indirect advertising from having its name on the stadium facade and fans saying it out loud countless times, while the team gets an association with a company it has no influence over that it may or may not want down the road.
Plus, these things, as we are witnessing, are temporary and over time can lead to confusion. Because of corporate mergers, bankruptcies, and just plain fickleness, eight current Major League parks have gone by multiple names in the last 20 years. Nine, now. (And that isn't counting the mess that was Joe Robbie/Pro Player/Dolphin/Land Shark/Sun Life Stadium in Miami.) Heck, just across the street is Seahawks Sta— I mean, Qwest Fi— I mean, CenturyLink Field.
I don't know how one would put a monetary value on this, but don't you think it would engender goodwill if the Mariners decided they were permanently naming the ballpark something that tied it to their own identity rather than whoring it out to whatever corporation flashed them a few million dollars? I know I'd fell better calling the place "Dave Niehaus Park" or "Edgar Martinez Field," or even "Elliott Bay Ballpark, Home of the Mariners."
It's too much to hope that this is a passing fad. It's one thing for team owners to name the ballpark after themselves—that's been going on forever (e.g. Comiskey Park, Busch Stadium, Turner Field)—but selling to the highest bidder wasn't a thing in baseball until the Rockies moved into Coors Field and the Giants rebranded Candlestick Park as 3Com Park in 1995. The whole practice is just...crass. But it appears to be here to stay. Even the Dodgers are looking to sell naming rights to Dodger Stadium.
Baseball, more than other sports, is steeped in its history. When a ballpark's name has staying power, it becomes iconic. The words "Fenway Park" evoke imagery that "Guaranteed Rate Field" just can't. Wrigley Field might not have started life as Wrigley Field, but it has been Wrigley Field since 1926, outlasting both William and Philip Wrigley and the Cubs' change in ownership to Tribune Media, because the name is revered. It's a shame such a thing will apparently never happen again with park identities changing repeatedly whenever a rights deal expires or a corporate merger happens or a company goes bankrupt after defrauding millions of people.
Meanwhile, get ready to "Go Mobile" for games at "The T." Or to take in some "T-ball." And the next time you yell "I told you so" down to the the dugout when Scott Servais mismanages his bullpen and coughs up the lead, be sure to ask, "can you hear me NOW?"