Friday, March 13, 1998
School sports lose honor
by selling name

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Early this year, boosters at the new Lakota West High School came up with a way to pay for a new field house: Sell the naming rights to the school's sports complex and stadium.

In exchange for a $600,000 ''donation,'' the ''donor'' would be able to have their name on signs atop the stadium's press box and a field house for 10 to 15 years.

The field house would sit near the sports complex's football, soccer and softball fields. The building would house locker rooms, weight rooms, offices and storage space.

The pros do it. (Cinergy Field.) Colleges do it. (Ohio State's Value City Arena.) So, why not a high school?

So far, the boosters have approached 40 firms and been turned down by three.

This week, the district's other brand-new high school, Lakota East, announced the naming rights to its sports complex and planned field house are also for sale.

Someday, I hope, both schools get to build those new field houses. But my wish is that they raise the money some other way.

Selling the names of high school stadiums says everything can be bought. Instead of honoring heroes, we're too busy chasing the almighty dollar.

Nation's first

Lakota is not alone in the public school marketplace.

According to the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education in Oakland, Ca., an educational watchdog group, hundreds of deals have been cut in the '90s between schools and corporations. Most revolved around soft drinks, trading money for being the lone cola on campus.

Coca-Cola is paying Colorado Springs' school district $8 million over 10 years to be the only cola sold at school functions and in vending machines.

No high school has ever sold the naming rights to its very own stadium. So Lakota East and West could make dubious history in the selling of what I consider special space. Public school facilities should be named after a person who achieved or inspired, not a company or a product.

Lakota West's pitch is delivered by Lyman Smith, whose day job is selling communications systems. Smith and his slick three-minute video are an impressive sales team.

The video opens with a picture of the campus and these words in big, bold letters: Expand corporate visibility. Invest in the hottest area and in the future of Southwestern Ohio.

Smith sees winners all around if he can cinch a deal.

''If we get a major company,'' he said, ''they'll get their $600,000 back in prime time TV news. We'll have Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw down here and announce it on a Thursday. That's the week's most-watched broadcast.''

I wondered if it was such a good deal for the ''donor,'' so I called an expert, Richard A. Segal Jr., managing director of the Hensley Segal Rentschler ad agency. He liked it. ''The school is in one of the region's prime up-scale markets.''

Your name here

Part of Lyman Smith's pitch is to point out how the district is a ''fairly affluent'' area. Good demographics for any advertiser, er, sorry, donor.

Incomes, he said, are high. ''These people are decision makers, business influencers.''

So why do they have to sell their schools' good names? Can't they raise the money themselves?

''That would take an army of volunteers and it might fall short,'' he said. ''Selling the naming rights is a more viable alternative.''

Perhaps. And I don't fault the good people of the Lakota Local School District for trying to save money. But there is something not quite right, I feel, about buying part of a public school's name. I'm used to names carrying meaning, history, inspiration. Not corporate logos.

In a time when the Nike swoosh is splashed across anything that moves in sports, I still feel a kinship for the time - and it was not that long ago - when the only thing that mattered on an athlete's uniform was dirt.

Call me hopelessly romantic - or just hopeless - but any way I look at asking for ''donations'' for a stadium's naming rights, it still seems like selling out.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.