NBA AM: What’s In A Name?

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About 10 years ago, Utah Jazz ownership was forced to shop around the naming rights to their arena when Delta Airlines opted not to renew their deal with the team due to bankruptcy. What they landed on was EnergySolutions Arena, a name that came courtesy of a locally-based company that disposes of low-level nuclear waste – and that right there is everything that’s wrong with how sporting venues are named these days.

The Jazz have spent nine of the last 10 seasons playing in a building named after an organization that cleans up industrial sludge. But around this time last fall, they were gifted a re-brand. The only problem is the new name rolls off the tongue about as easily as sand: Vivint Smart Home Arena.

While not the most ridiculous sounding arena name in the league (Hello, Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix), names like EnergySolutions Arena and Vivint Smart Home Arena show just how silly things have gotten in the world of naming professional sports venues.

Not that Utah’s situation was the tipping point. Teams have been turning traditionally classic names into laughably commercial hooey for years, as we’ve seen a slew of classic NBA arenas turn their names over to banks, retail stores, soft drink companies and even home security system services. In fact, throughout the whole league there are only two remaining arenas without a corporate sponsor attached to them: The Palace in Auburn Hills and Madison Square Garden.

It wasn’t always this way. Owners in the earliest of days of Major League Baseball gave their teams names that coincided with their businesses—think Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Professional sports franchises didn’t start selling away the naming rights of their stadiums until the 1950s, when the St. Louis Cardinals led the way by saying goodbye to the classically-named Sportsman’s Park in favor of local booze connoisseur Augustus Busch’s last name. He actually wanted to call it Budweiser Stadium, but then-National League president Ford C. Frick put the kibosh on that for the sake of taste and class. A quick look at today’s version of Busch Stadium makes sure the connection to beer is in no way subtle. Frick is somewhere rolling in his grave.

Even the Boston Garden, the home of the league’s most decorated franchise and the game’s most recognizable parquet court design, didn’t transfer to the Celtics’ new arena. In the 21 years since the move, it has operated under sponsorships from Fleet Bank and TD Bank. The TD Garden does still include part of that original iconic name and the parquet floor remains, but it’s not the same. Boston Garden is classic. TD Garden is corporate.

The BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee has held onto its “Bradley Center” roots too, but for the most part every other arena in the league has a blunt partnership with some massive corporation. Seven arenas are currently named after banks or financial institutions, four of them are named after airlines (two of which come courtesy of American Airlines), two are named after beverages and two are named after cell phone carriers.

Still, it could be worse. When the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals built their new arena 10 years ago, there was a very serious $30 million bid from the restaurant Pink Taco. The team reportedly never considered naming their building “Pink Taco Arena,” but the fact that a business was willing to throw around that much money in their bid suggests it’s only a matter of time until something truly ridiculous is coming to the world of arena naming rights.

The home ground of Scottish Championship soccer club Livingston, for example, is currently named the Tony Macaroni Arena, which is significantly less classy than what it used to be called: Almondvale.

Nothing in the NBA has gotten quite so cartoonish, but the Smoothie King Center does not sound like a place where professional athletes perform at the highest level each and every night. Quicken Loans Arena isn’t much better, even when shortened to “The Q.” We’ve lost the Rose Garden to the Moda Center, Chicago Stadium to the United Center, The Summit to the Compaq Center and The Forum to the Staples Center. Great names of iconic buildings have been swapped for commercials easily viewable from six or seven zooms away on Google Maps. While everyone understands that it brings in money, fans don’t care about what benefits the bottom line – even if it’s a service they love. Think about how crazy everybody went when Netflix raised their prices $2 a month.

It’s really all about money and nothing else, and most fans know that. It doesn’t change the feeling that arena names should have some class, some historical relevance and even a little of pride behind them. Companies like Pepsi and Toyota certainly have managed these qualities in their own corporate worlds, but in the world of sports they just come off as garish and even borderline silly.

There’s no going back now, but at least teams are avoiding true embarrassments like Pink Taco Stadium and Tony Macaroni Arena. And the really good news is that EnergySolutions Arena is no longer a thing. That name in particular was such a waste. A bio-hazardous, low-level nuclear waste.