Is Sport Becoming Too Commercialised? the Houston Astros' Public Relations Crisis

By Jensen, Ric; Butler, Bryan | International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship, October 2007 | Go to article overview

Is Sport Becoming Too Commercialised? the Houston Astros' Public Relations Crisis


Jensen, Ric, Butler, Bryan, International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship


Abstract

Throughout sport, the incidence of commercial sponsorship is increasing and shows no signs of slowing. This case study examines the negative consequences that can arise when a corporate stadium naming rights partner (Enron) becomes embroiled in financial and ethical controversies and how its collapse affected the team that uses the stadium for its home games (Major League Baseball's Houston Astros). It examines public relations strategies and tactics the Astros used to disassociate themselves from Enron and to recapture public support.

Keywords

commercialisation

Houston Astros

naming rights

public relations

Enron

Executive summary

The practice of selling the naming rights of sports stadia to corporations is widespread in the United States. Crompton & Howard (2003) suggest that the sales of stadium naming rights will become more widespread and more financially lucrative as sports organisations seek additional revenue to offset higher salaries paid to players. Although the sales of stadium naming rights are thought to be a financial windfall, Chen & Stone (2002) describe many situations in which corporate naming rights partners have encountered financial and ethical challenges which in turn pose challenges for sports organisations. This paper focuses attention on the extraordinary circumstances facing the Houston Astros Major League Baseball team when their stadium naming rights partner, Enron, collapsed in 2001.

The Enron case is unique in several respects. Before its fall, Enron claimed revenues of more than $100 billion and was named 'America's Most Innovative Company' by Fortune magazine. After its collapse, Enron was associated with the dubious honour of having filed the largest bankruptcy in American history. To make matters worse, Enron was not just a financial disaster: to many experts it presented a moral tale of greed and callous disregard for the public good. Some of the words used to describe Enron include "notorious," "scandal-tainted" and "a black eye" (Chen & Stone, 2002). Darren Rovell of ESPN commented: "Although many stadia still bear the names of sponsors that recently went bankrupt, the Astros' situation might be the worst. Being associated with a bankrupt company is much different than being associated with a bankrupt company that has been charged with record shredding, insider trading and blatant accounting abuses."

This article describes the process that the Astros went through to disassociate themselves from Enron, how they tried to incorporate 'good citizen' requirements into the criteria of choosing a new stadium naming rights partner, and community outreach efforts the team undertook to restore the confidence of fans. The paper suggests that comprehensive use of public relations strategies that stress the importance of building relationships between sports organisations and valued publics can be effectively used to cope with crises such as this.

Introduction

Today it has become increasingly difficult to watch a sporting event without being inundated by manifestations of corporate influence (Boyd, 2000; Chen & Stone, 2002). In Major League Soccer, the New York franchise is named for an energy drink and the team uniforms prominently feature the Red Bull logo (Freedman, 2006). As players run from one end of a National Basketball Association floor to the other, advertising signs can be seen from basket to basket, enticing fans to buy products and services (Clark et al, 2002). Perhaps the most egregious examples can be found in NASCAR, where stock car racers and their cars are covered head-to-toe and bumper-to-bumper with advertisements and promotions (Pruitt et al, 2004).

It wasn't always this way. In the minds of many fans, the ideal is to separate corporate advertising and promotion to create a sacred place, a cathedral of sorts, that is pure and untouched by the world of business (Boyd, 2000; Aden, 1993). …

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