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Soldier Field safe under next mayor

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

For a while, NFL stadiums were sweet on suites. But now the name’s the game.

Of the NFL’s 32 teams, 19 have naming-rights deals — many worth millions annually — and several other prominent stadiums are searching for a corporate partner.

Los Angeles hasn’t had a team since the Raiders headed back upstate, but it already has secured a lucrative naming-rights deal in anticipation of the NFL’s homecoming to Hollywood; Farmers Insurance agreed to a 30-year, $700 million agreement on a proposed stadium.

Although Chicago soon will elect a new mayor, the Bears’ home will remain Soldier Field. According to their spokespeople, three of the top mayoral candidates would not consider a name change in any way, while one would be open to exploring the subject only if it included the name ‘‘Soldier Field.’’

‘‘Soldier Field is a sacred Chicago landmark that honors our veterans and, as mayor, Gery would be very careful to protect that,’’ said Brooke Anderson, spokeswoman for candidate Gery Chico. ‘‘He would be open to exploring creative ideas that could attract sponsors while preserving the Soldier Field name and stadium to give soldiers the respect they deserve.’’

But Rahm Emanuel, Carol Moseley Braun and Miguel del Valle are adopting the same hard-line stance as Mayor Daley, who insisted the stadium name remain untouched for his support of a $587  million renovation of Soldier Field in 2003.

The Bears acquiesced before the renovation project started, and any change would require the city and the team to revisit the matter.

The city has debt to deal with, while the team — despite ranking as the NFL’s ninth-most valuable franchise by Forbes magazine — lags behind others in stadium revenue.

“It’s typically the largest, single-biggest revenue source outside of broadcasting,’’ said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a sports business consulting firm based in Chicago. ‘‘For those teams that use it, it is vital. And for those teams that don’t have it, it is significant hole.’’

Major money

There’s plenty of skepticism about the Los Angeles naming-rights deal, most notably the lack of a team.

‘‘They have a lot of work to do before they can start cashing those checks,’’ said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute. ‘‘You don’t know how much will be in trade or cash.’’

Other NFL stadiums are raking in millions by partnering with companies. Reliant Energy reportedly pays $10 million a year for the Houston Texans to play in Reliant Stadium. That is thought to be the richest deal in the NFL. The most profitable naming-rights deal in the United States is by the New York Mets, a team that collects $20 million a year from Citigroup to play in Citi Field. The Barclays Center, which is under construction in Brooklyn, will reap the NBA’s Nets $20 million a year once completed.

Two of the NFL’s most valuable teams, both of whom opened new stadiums last year, are looking for naming-rights deals. The Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants have had discussions with companies and are open to partnerships, although neither is too anxious. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones remains patient, even though his stadium hosted the Super Bowl on Sunday.

‘‘I have always said that unless we are ready in the right way with the right partner, then ‘Cowboys Stadium’ is the way we want it,’’ Jones said last week.

Meanwhile, the Giants contemplated a proposal from Allianz that was worth anywhere from $20  million to $30 million a year but ultimately declined it, reportedly because of the company’s ties to Nazi Germany during World War II.

There are debates about the actual value of companies buying naming rights to stadiums. Obscure and risky companies often have gambled and dissolved. The New England Patriots’ stadium initially was called CMGI Field. But the company was a casualty of the dot-com bubble burst, and Gillette took over the naming rights.

‘‘We have a lot of bank loans we’ve got to pay off, so having Gillette as a partner has helped us pay off our [debts],’’ Patriots owner Robert Kraft said. ‘‘[Gillette Stadium is] completely privately financed, so we have to be entrepreneurial and bring in sponsors. Gillette’s been a great partner.

‘‘It’s like a good marriage. Hard to find a good partner, but when you find one, love them up and keep it going.’’

There’s no better case study in the actual value of stadium naming rights than the home of the Miami Dolphins. Opened in 1987, it’s on its seventh name.

Last year, just before the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl, Sun Life acquired its naming rights. Since then, though, the financial firm has no complaints.

‘‘It was an opportunity for us to get brand exposure and align ourselves with a premium stadium,’’ said Bill Webster, Sun Life vice president and brand strategy and development leader. ‘‘We reassessed after the economic turn, and we decided to promote that we’re solid financially.’’

Webster declined to provide terms of his company’s deal with the Dolphins, but it’s reportedly $25 million over five years.

In its first year — thanks to the Super Bowl, Orange Bowl and Pro Bowl — Sun Life projected it reached 175 million viewers, adding up to about $8 million in media value. Moreover, its analysis showed ‘‘consumer-aided awareness’’ rose from 4 to 18 percent in less than one year, a whopping 450 percent increase.

But Webster noted the naming-rights deal was ‘‘one prong’’ of a multistep initiative.

‘‘You can’t just do stadium-naming rights on its own,’’ he said.

Falling behind

The NFC North might be the NFL’s most competitive division, but the teams struggle to squeeze out revenue from their respective stadiums. The teams might play in some of the nation’s most recognizable stadiums, but that history comes with a price.

The Minnesota Vikings are last in stadium revenue, and the Bears, Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers aren’t among NFL leaders.

The desperate Vikings last year announced a partnership to call their home ‘‘Mall of America Field at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.’’ A mouthful, for sure, yet a necessary measure because the Metrodome is a stadium among the NFL’s worst in terms of suites.

The Lions sold naming rights to their stadium to Ford Motor Co. for just $1 million a year, through 2042, the longest known deal in the NFL.

Last May, the Packers hired Tim Connolly as vice president of sales and marketing and charged him to spearhead ways to generate more revenue and improve branding of the team.

But one thing is off limits, team president Mark Murphy said.

‘‘Lambeau Field is probably the best asset that we have,’’ Murphy said. ‘‘To do anything to diminish that would be really hard. We’ve sold naming rights to the gates, and that’s been helpful. But Lambeau Field is an icon, and we don’t want to change that. We’re not going to do that.’’

The Bears have been creative, too. They signed a deal with Bank One, now Chase, to be their official ‘‘presenting sponsor.’’ Reports said the 12-year deal, signed in 2003, was worth more than $30 million.

The Bears are successful in many ways, including merchandising, yet they are at the back of the NFL pack for stadium revenue.

Chicago has two franchises that play in revered stadiums — the Cubs and the Bears — and ‘‘if the Cubs could sell naming rights, they could get upward of $15 million to $20 million a year,” Ganis said.

And adding a corporate partner to Soldier Field could net the Bears and the city at least $10  million a year.

That sort of money — an undetermined chunk the city would keep — could, for instance, help ensure the Taste of Chicago remains free to the public.

‘‘The world has changed,’’ Ganis said. ‘‘But it has not stopped spinning. That could be in the dialogue, but it will not happen.’’

The history of the stadium is too deep, dating to the 1920s, as a memorial to American soldiers who had died in wars.

‘‘The name is a tribute to those who sacrificed and continue to do so for our freedom,’’ said Renee Ferguson, Moseley Braun’s spokeswoman.

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