When should the Nationals sell naming rights for Nationals Park?

Nationals Park.  (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Nationals Park. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Nationals Park re-opened for baseball last week, the seventh season the Nationals will play in the $611-million-plus, 41,500-seat stadium in Southeast. And for each of the past six years, the stadium has been known simply as that: Nationals Park. As stadiums across the country sell naming rights as a way to bring in several million in revenue each season, the Nationals have stood pat.

“Now isn’t the time to start looking,” principal owner Mark Lerner said before Friday’s home opener. “We haven’t actively been looking in the past few years. If something starts to happen, that’s great. It’s not really the time, though. It’s nice to have it. It’s not something we’re rushing to do. The great thing about the way we’ve approached it, we’ve kept all of our major naming rights opportunities in the stadium — all the levels, the gates, the center field plaza. We still have all our inventory.”

The Nationals have long been interested in selling their naming rights — but only if the deal is right. In 2008, the Nationals hired Wasserman Media Group, which secures sponsorship deals for teams, and officials acknowledged that they would be judicious about finding the right fit. Before the 2013 season, when the Nationals’ stock was likely at its highest as a World Series favorite, the lack of naming rights arose again. And this offseason, the Texas Rangers sold naming rights for their 20-year-old stadium, which was without a name for many years, to insurance company Global Life for a deal believed to be worth $50 million for 10 years.

Some experts have said the Nationals could command at least $10 million in a deal of 20 years or more. Another expert said that if the Nationals sold simply naming rights — without additional partnerships with that company — the Nationals could command as much as $8 million a year. Because of the national television exposure, naming rights for NFL stadiums are traditionally more lucrative than baseball stadiums, but the Mets still have the largest deal. The Mets sold the rights to its stadium, now called Citi Field, to CitiGroup in a controversial deal worth a reported $400 million over 20 years. (The CitiField deal was more complicated than simply naming rights and the bank also received extensive advertising on television and additional benefits in the deal.)

One disadvantage to waiting to secure naming rights is name recognition. For seven years, the public has called Washington’s baseball stadium as Nationals Park. The longer the team takes to add a sponsor, the more people will have Nationals Park ingrained in their vocabulary.

“People start to get comfortable and familiar with that name and then when you go out and find a naming rights partner it is devalued a little bit because you’re not already calling it that from day one,” said Jeff Marks, the managing director of Premier Partnerships, one of the leading naming rights companies in the country. The company has secured naming rights deal for the Oakland’s O.co Coliseum and the Rangers’ Global Life Park.

The Nationals’ stock has risen dramatically in recent years. The Lerners bought the team for $450 million in 2006 and now Forbes magazine has valued the franchise at $700 million. After years of losing, the team won a National League East title in 2012 and posted a winning record in 2013. This season, the Nationals are a trendy World Series pick again. Local television ratings have risen and Washington is a top-10 media market. “D.C. is a tremendous market and it will demand a premium,” Marks said.

Nationals Park drew 2.65 million fans in 2013, the 11th highest total in the majors. Players like Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond have attracted more attention. The Nationals have played on national television more in recent seasons, too, and that helps with notoriety.

“Winning is everything,” Marks said recently. “When people are investing in sports, it’s not like buying a commercial spot or a billboard. There is the emotional appeal to it. If you’re a company, you want to align yourself with a winner, a brand that is winning.”

The Nationals don’t necessarily have to be rushed because of the ownership’s capital. Ted Lerner, the team’s managing principal owner, has a net worth of $4 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which makes him the second-wealthiest owner in baseball. His son, principal owner Mark Lerner, said last week that ownership was “beyond topped out” with a team-high $134.7 million payroll. Revenue may be hurt by stalled negotiations with Orioles owner Peter Angelos over its television rights fee contract with Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, but there are millions to be gained with a naming rights deal.

“There’s no advantage to waiting,” Marks said. “But does ownership need the money? Some owners may say, ‘No, I don’t want to put a corporate name on it. I don’t need the money.’ But others are saying, ‘If I can go X million a year for X years, I can go get a better player and put him on the field and win. Everyone else is doing it, why wouldn’t it do it?’ Every year the Nationals don’t have a name, that’s millions of dollars they don’t have.”

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