Should Citi Back Away From the Mets?

Almost every taxpayer who isn't a New York Mets fan is outraged by Citi's $400 million, 20-year deal for naming rights to the new Mets stadium, known as Citi Field. It's true that shelling out that kind of money at a time when taxpayers are bankrolling the company and backstopping hundreds of billions of dollars worth of its assets may seem tone-deaf and stupid, even for a bank. And, historically, naming rights have been a classic vanity move. Corporations tend to make grandiose civic/corporate statements right when they are about to implode. If you had shorted Citi's stock when it announced the sponsorship deal in November 2006, you would have made a lot of money.

But there's a reasonable case to be made for preserving the deal, especially if Citi could get the Mets to extend the deal to 30 or 40 years. In order for Citi to weather the storm, recover, and pay back taxpayers (and insulate them from further losses), the company must invest for both the short- and long-term. For companies in highly competitive consumer markets, marketing and advertising are essential, entirely justifiable expenses. Companies—even companies getting bailed out by the feds—need to attract customers and to build their brand image. It's difficult to measure the value of any specific campaign or ad. But there's reason to think that for this company, at this stadium, in this location, a naming-rights deal might not be such a bad long-term move.

The cost is high—$400 million over 20 years. But the present-day cost isn't quite as high as you think, especially if, as Darren Rovell of CNBC suggests, it is paid out in annual installments. In 2029, $20 million will be worth a lot less than $20 million is today. And any type of advertising that reaches a lot of people is expensive. In this economy, NBC was able to charge $3 million for a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. Though the audience size for Mets games won't approach that of the Super Bowl, the location of the stadium guarantees that the Citi logo will be visible to hundreds of millions of people each year. Citi Field is a giant billboard that will be visible not just to the 4 million-plus people who attend Mets games each year but to the tens of millions of people who drive past it on the Grand Central Parkway, the Van Wyck Expressway, and other roadways and the 25 million or so passengers who fly into and out of LaGuardia Airport each year.

And stadium naming deals generate a huge amount of free advertising. On the broadcasts of the team's 81 home games (and, sponsors hope, post-season games), announcers will repeatedly refer to the company's name in a nonadvertising context: "Welcome back to Citi Field." Likewise, newspaper, Internet, and television coverage will produce hundreds of millions of impressions of the company's name per year.

Naming-rights deals are most justifiable when the product or company doing the naming has an intuitive connection to the people who visit the stadium. The Montreal Canadiens used to play in the Molson Center, which made sense since hockey fans drink a lot of beer. Ditto for the Colorado Rockies, who play in Coors Field. (When Internet company PSInet planted its name on the Baltimore Ravens' stadium, it didn't make quite as much sense.) Citi would seem to be something of a natural for the New York Mets. It's a New York-based bank. The Mets are based in New York City. Baseball stadiums tend to attract a prosperous, heavily male clientele, including professionals, small-business owners, and corporate executives. Many companies use Mets games to entertain and schmooze prospective clients. In short, a lot of the sorts of people who are likely to utilize Citi's services will be attending games at Citi Field.

Of course, people who read about games at Citi Field on won't be learning much about Citi's mortgage rates. But naming rights, especially if they endure, can perform another vital function for brands. It can help make them part of the vernacular. The greatest desire of any marketer is for her product's name to work its way into conversations. When I was growing up, it was common to say, "I want a Coke" when you were referring to any kind of soda. People ask for a Kleenex when they mean a tissue, say they're going to Xerox a document even if they're using a Ricoh copier, and speak of Googling when they refer to an Internet search. Stadium naming rights can help products and brands gain that sort of status. Since 1926, baseball fans on the north side of Chicago have spoken about going to games at Wrigley Field. Does that make fans more likely to buy Wrigley's gum products? It can't hurt. "Meet me at Citi," doesn't quite have the same ring as "Meet me at Shea." But after 20 or 30 years, it might.