U.S. Sen. John W. Warner objected yesterday to the National Guard's plan to pay several million dollars for naming rights to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium during the Washington Nationals' sojourn there, forcing District leaders to scramble to salvage the deal.
The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission and the Nationals had agreed to terms with the Guard for a three-year, $6 million deal, according to sources familiar with the talks. In exchange, the stadium would be called National Guard Field at RFK. The money would be used by the city to renovate recreation centers and upgrade athletic fields.
However, as of late last night, the entire matter appeared clouded in uncertainty. A spokesman for the National Guard said the general in charge decided yesterday morning to reject the naming proposal. Dan Donohue said Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum rejected the proposal based on the need to fund higher priorities, including recruiting and retention bonuses and equipment for troops deployed overseas.
The city has been trying to finalize sponsorship before the Nationals play their first home game at RFK on Thursday. About 46,000 people are expected, including President Bush, who will throw the ceremonial first pitch.
As Warner made his concerns known, sources said that plans were being made to announce the sponsorship today.
"We have a signed contract with the National Guard, and I have every expectation that this agreement will move forward," said Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the sports commission.
But Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, moved to halt the endorsement deal in a conversation Blum, chief of National Guard personnel, said John Ullyot, Warner's spokesman.
"Senator Warner called the Pentagon this morning, once he learned of the plans to have it named National Guard Field, and he expressed his strong view that this is not the wisest use of the Guard's money in wartime, when we are trying to do everything we can to increase recruiting," Ullyot said. "This was a large sum of money with not much tangible to show for it."
The Guard's sponsorship deal is with both the sports commission and the Nationals, granting the Guard advertising space inside and outside the stadium, along with other promotional opportunities, sources said.
Talks on the matter reportedly went on through the day.
Vince Morris, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said the mayor "hopes very strongly this deal can be salvaged" and has said the money could be used " for great programs."
Sources said the Guard, which has units in every state and the District, was interested in the sponsorship to help recruitment at a time when its ranks have decreased.
Branches of the armed forces have healthy budgets to market themselves. City officials had said the Army, which advertises through NASCAR, rodeo and other sports, was interested in the RFK sponsorship, although an Army spokesman disputed that claim.
Ullyot said that the NASCAR sponsorship has "tangible benefits" and that its advertising is crafted to yield recruits. It is not clear, he said, that the RFK sponsorship would do the same.
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu and Martin Weil contributed to this report.