AD INFINITUM; Sponsorship the Lifeblood of Pro sports.(PAGE ONE)(SPECIAL REPORT)

Article excerpt

Byline: Eric Fisher, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The New England Patriots were fresh off their unexpected Super Bowl triumph in January when a crisis arose that threatened to return them to the ranks of pro football's also-rans. A career-ending injury to quarterback Tom Brady? The loss of a star free agent to another team?

The Patriots' problem wasn't on the playing field, it was on the facade of their new stadium. The naming-rights sponsor for the team's $325 million facility was in the midst of a massive collapse. The stock of CMGI, a technology holding company that lost more than $5 billion in 2001, fell from $163 a share to less than 50 cents.

CMGI's collapse put the Patriots in a tough spot. The team was scheduled to open the stadium on "Monday Night Football" on Sept. 9, and it needed to find a new sponsor - and fast. But the economy was soft, and, worse yet, the market for naming-rights sponsors was suffering a pronounced slump.

In less than a year, the Baltimore Ravens, Houston Astros and Tennessee Titans each parted ways with their bankrupt naming-rights sponsors. The Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints couldn't even find a sponsor.

The Patriots ultimately fared better. After a seven-month search, the team signed a contract with Gillette in August. The shaving and battery giant agreed to pay a sum believed to be nearly $100 million to pick up CMGI's contract and put its name on the new stadium.

The deal with Gillette is far more important to the Patriots than simple vanity or a few extra dollars on the ledger. Quite simply, the massive corporate sponsorship meant the difference between maintaining the Patriots' status as a competitive and economic force in the National Football League or slipping back into the ranks of the have-nots of pro football.

"Under previous ownerships, this franchise was consistently at the low end of payroll around the league," said Andy Wasynczuk, Patriots senior vice president. "The attitude of the [Robert] Kraft family is very different, and this new stadium and the Gillette relationship really backs up a lot of our long-term planning and gives us greater wherewithal to go forward. We are in a much better position to be a competitive football team."

Corporate sponsorship, long an integral part of professional sports, has never been more important, pervasive or influential than it is right now. One need look no further for evidence than FedEx Field, the ad-covered home of the Washington Redskins, or events with such wince-inducing names as college football's Insight.com Bowl or NASCAR's Checker Auto Parts 500 Presented by Pennzoil stock-car race. Even last week's death of Johnny Unitas, widely regarded as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, will not deter the Baltimore Ravens from seeking a new corporate name for its home stadium. Tens of thousand of fans unsuccessfully petitioned the club to rename its facility after the Baltimore Colts legend.

Much of the reason is economic: Ticket prices and television-rights contracts no longer show the meteoric increases of years past, but sponsorship revenue continues to march upward. Sports sponsorship amounts to more than $6.4 billion per year among North American-based companies, 41 percent higher than just four years ago.

Part of the reason is technology: New forms of sponsorship, such as virtual stadium ads that are visible only to TV viewers, are cheaper and easier to produce than they were only a few years ago.

There also is a reason that is harder to quantify: Sponsorship also allows teams to craft their own economic destinies apart from prearranged league economic and marketing systems.

"A business has to sustain itself, and there are multiple aspects to what we can now do in the new stadium, sponsorship included," Mr. Wasynczuk said. "We still have our mortgage [on Gillette Stadium], but the ability to go out and create new business and forge our own path for ourselves has been greatly enhanced. …