Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

What's in a name: branding the Hart Park playing fields

branding, Jill Didier, naming rights, Wauwatosa

I'm much more than a consumer. I'm a citizen. I care about history, tradition, the particularity of  place, civic responsibility, and the separation of government and commercial "speech." And that's why I'm leery about naming rights at Hart Park.


According to an article in the Journal Sentinel and WauwatosaNOW, Mayor Jill “Didier says selling the rights will help the city financially and ‘create a sense of public ownership’ in the upgrade, which includes expansion of the athletic field and tennis courts,” and “the city is researching how much money other communities have received for naming rights. She would not estimate how much the rights at Hart Park could be sold for.”


I’m not sure what sense of public ownership selling naming rights would give. It looks more like corporate ownership. Privatizing civic responsibility can make taxpayers think they don’t have any responsibility for funding the project, that that responsibility belongs to someone else. They become less likely to want to support civic projects in the future and more likely to vote against (parks, schools, insert nameable project of your choice here). It's no longer "ours." It's "theirs."


Let’s ignore the 1999 financial and image disaster of the Houston Astros naming their new ballpark Enron Field. Or the same thing poised to play out  with Citi Bank and the New York Mets.


Let’s assume our leaders have more sense than to even consider naming fields used by youth after businesses that profit from alcohol and tobacco. (Added: I learned at tonight's Community Development

Committee meeting that they do have that much sense.)


Instead, let’s look at this as a business transaction.


There’s some interesting research  that shows corporations don't get a great return on their investment in naming rights. As more of them come to understand this, the amount they are willing to pay decreases. 


And there’s some agreement that they already are paying too little.  The mayor's office research into what others are paying for naming rights is likely to uncover low-ball values. I'm not aware that our city has enough experience in these sorts of transactions to make a deal worth doing.


Fundraiser Jeane Vogel does, and she has some interesting observations. While they relate to nonprofit organizations, the observations work equally well for government entities.

Once you name something, it’s named and it’s hard to change it later unless the donor goes to jail for something really awful. You’re stuck. I know of (an organization) that is actually thinking of tearing down a 35-year-old named building and building fresh on the same site, partially because they need to get out from under the old name and approach new donors. I am still shaking my head in disbelief at this incredibly bad idea.


Choose the amount of the naming gifts very carefully, and DON’T UNDERSELL YOUSELF! Many . . . sell the naming rights very cheap. Keep in mind, that’s probably the largest gift you are going to get from that donor. And the largest gift of the naming campaign will become the largest gift you EVER can get.


Here’s a true example that still makes my blood boil whenever I think of the squandered opportunities: an organization is young and needs some quick cash. They can’t seem to get their major donors to gift at the level the organization needs. They are approached by a prospective donor who wants the organization named after him. He names a price, say $500,000. A whole organization! Only $500,000! As you can imagine I advised them to tell the donor that the organization could be named for him, but for no less than $2 million.


They were afraid of the big money and thought the donor would walk away. But here was a donor who wanted his name on this particular type of agency. He had the capacity and the interest. There were no other agencies of this type left to be named. The agency held the better hand but the donor had the better poker face. The agency folded.


Selling naming rights is more than saving the taxpayers a little money. Aside from the potential for the deal to go bad, it can change the character of a community. I sort of like the character Wauwatosa has now, and the commitment of the citizens to building a place that looks like us, not a corporate entity.


If we decide to sell our soul, let's hope we at least get plenty for it.


Added: After attending the Community Development Committee meeting Tuesday, it looks like what's being considered most strongly is naming after individuals or groups with ties to Tosa (for example, "The Class of 52 Stadium.") I think that's less problematic than corporate naming, but it still calls for careful consideration.  What are the individual or group qualities that tell a story about us that's noble and inspiring?

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