Bengals finally sell stadium naming rights

It’s the end of an era in Cincinnati as the Bengals become the 30th NFL team with a stadium carrying the name of a corporate sponsor. Just Lambeau Field and Soldier Field remain as outliers… 

A partnership for the future

The list of NFL stadia for the coming 2022 season was updated twice in the last week. The Pittsburgh Steelers found a new corporate sponsor, with Heinz Field morphing into Acrisure Stadium after a $10 million per year deal was struck with the Michigan-based insurance company. But arguably more newsworthy was the decision by their AFC North rivals, the Cincinnati Bengals, to finally sell the naming rights to Paul Brown Stadium, which has honoured the franchise’s legendary founder since it opened in 2000.

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The rights have gone to Paycor, a payroll and human resources software provider. Paycor has been headquartered in the city for more than 30 years and the 16-year arrangement is an extension of an existing business relationship.

Even though the Bengals’ owner and president, 86-year-old Mike Brown, is Paul Brown’s son, the switch to Paycor Stadium wasn’t a total bolt out of the blue. He told reporters last month that selling the naming rights was necessary for his team to be able to compete.

“This is a move that I think my father would have agreed to. He was always for what’s best for the football team. This partnership allows the Bengals to continue to compete at the highest level in the NFL and exemplifies our long-term commitment to the community.”
Mike Brown, President, Cincinnati Bengals

Paul Brown died three decades ago, when the Bengals were still playing at their former home (Riverfront Stadium), so he never saw the arena that would bear his name. I guess we have to believe Mike Brown’s assertion that his father wouldn’t mind being usurped by a HR software business.

It’s all about the money, money, money

Despite their unexpected run to Super Bowl LVI, the Bengals generated “just” $458 million in revenue in 2021 – a league low. The franchise is apparently worth $2.8 billion, which is also the lowest in the NFL. Plus Mike Brown doesn’t have any outside business interests and therefore hasn’t got the same financial clout as his peers. 

While the terms of the Paycor/Bengals deal haven’t been disclosed, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincy will receive the first $60.5 million and then 70% of the remaining revenue, with Hamilton County receiving the other 30%. Whatever the absolute value of the deal, it won’t be anywhere near the $31.2 million per year being paid by fintech company SoFi for the rights to the Rams’ and Chargers’ stadium in Los Angeles for the next 20 years, or the $25 million a year that Allegiant Airlines is forking out in Las Vegas. But, as they say, every little helps.

“We’re a small-market team, we need the revenue streams that we can obtain. The fact that about 30 teams have naming rights and a revenue stream from that, and they have more revenue than we do to begin with. We have to do some things just to keep up.”
Mike Brown, President, Cincinnati Bengals

Why now for Cincinnati?

The move comes as the Bengals are looking to capitalise on one of the best seasons in their history. The team reached the Super Bowl for the first time 31 years and the front office clearly wants to keep this young, exciting and improving team together for years to come.

As part of a general drive by the franchise to generate much-needed income, this deal could help to fund contract extensions coming down the track for the likes of Joe Burrow, Tee Higgins and Ja’Marr Chase (hence some initial social media fun about “PayJoe Stadium”). It might also contribute to the financing of a new indoor practice facility and some recently revealed renovation plans.

Similarly, Paycor has been increasing its profile since the company went public. Cincy’s Super Bowl run was perfect timing and the team’s on-field success was clearly attractive to the HR company.

“NFL stadium naming rights are a scarce asset. There are only 30 stadiums with naming rights in the U.S. and Paycor is now one of those 30. That was a unique opportunity, coupled with being a hometown team and a team on the rise, that we felt we had to take advantage of.”
Raul Villar Jr., CEO, Paycor

Sports Business Journal

And then there were two…

There are now just two NFL stadia remaining without naming rights deals with a corporate sponsor: Green Bay’s Lambeau Field and Chicago’s Soldier Field. So is either franchise likely to follow the Bengals and sell the name of their stadium?

The short answer is no.

The Packers are actually owned by local residents through a community-based model that is unique in the NFL. Back in 2015, team president Mark Murphy told shareholders that the naming rights to Lambeau Field (much like Paul Brown Stadium, named after the team’s founder and long-time coach Curly Lambeau) would never be sold.

“We will not sell the naming rights to the stadium. We will never do that. It will always be Lambeau Field.”
Mark Murphy, President, Green Bay Packers

Well, that seems fairly unequivocal.

As for the Bears, Soldier Field is more likely to change name at some point, but it’s far from a given. The league’s oldest home field is likely to undergo some major renovations in the near future, with proposals to make it a domed stadium for year-round use on the table. But those plans come with a hefty price tag of up to $2.2 billion, which increases the appeal of securing new revenue via sponsorship and naming rights agreements.

Even if the Soldier Field name is retained and a corporate sponsor added (along the lines of the Denver Broncos’ Empower Field at Mile High Stadium), there would be resistance. That’s because it was named in honour of those who fought and died during World War I and is considered by many to be a war memorial as well as a sporting arena.

“The people of Chicago don’t want their war memorial attached to a corporate name for money. It’s just not right. We’re Chicago and we’re Soldier Field, we’re not Jacksonville. There’s no tasteful way of attaching a corporate name to a war memorial. It’s a desecration.”
Pat Quinn, former Illinois Governor

So, there you have it. The Bengals have finally joined the fold and we now have 28 NFL arenas (SoFi Stadium and MetLife Stadium are shared) bearing the names of banks and financial institutions, car manufacturers, logistics businesses, energy companies, telecoms providers, even Hard Rock Café, all in pursuit of the almighty dollar. And given the unique situations in Green Bay and Chicago, I suspect that’s how it will stay for the foreseeable future. 

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