For Sale: Transit Naming Rights

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If you can generate big money for transit via naming rights, the Washington, DC transit system wants to hear from you.

As transit faces sagging ridership and aging infrastructure, the naming-rights gambit seems attractive. On Christmas Eve, DC’s Metro (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) posted a request for help in calculating revenue potential. The deadline is January 23:

“The contractor/consultant will review WMATA’s physical and intangible assets (including Metrorail stations, assets, properties and facilities) to identify potential corporate sponsorship and naming opportunities and estimate their value. Additionally, the preferred contractor/consultant will develop and implement a strategic marketing plan to identify and solicit potential corporate sponsors as well as negotiate corporate sponsorship agreements.

Proponents say selling transit naming rights is an over-due catchup to the sports stadium sponsorship bonanza. Critics huff about the creep of commercialism.

“With all the companies that want to buy Congress, won’t one of them want to put its name (on the subway station near the Capitol?)” snarked the (Express) free newspaper distributed in DC’s subway system.

Nationwide, transit naming rights is gaining traction.

San Francisco-based Salesforce will pay $110 million over 25 years for naming rights at a transit center and park connected to the firm’s skyscraper (Salesforce is a cloud-based “customer relationship management” platform.)

Offering perspective, Henry Grabar points out in Slate that buying transit naming rights is cheaper than Super Bowl ads or Levi’s deal to put its name on the pro football stadium in Santa Clara, CA.

Source: SportsBusinessJournal

Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) claims to be America’s first transit system to sell naming-rights:

  • The HealthLine is a 25-year sponsorship launched in 2008 with Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals. Along this line, station names have been sold to a Huntington Bank, Cleveland State University, Medical Mutual, and Bryant & Stratton College.
  • Starting in 2014, Cleveland State University entered into a 28-year naming-rights sponsorship of vehicles and bus stations.

In 2017, San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System inked a 30-year $25.5 million deal with the Sycuan Casino to rename the San Diego trolley’s Green Line.

Detroit’s new streetcar line is called the QLine, for Quicken Loans.

Image: Detroit Free-Press

In 2010, the regional transit system based in Philadelphia (SEPTA) approved a five-year deal to rename a key asset the “AT&T Station.” When the AT&T agreement expired, SEPTA sold rights to NRG Energy.

Terms have changed, reports Business Journal: The $5 million+ AT&T deal was split 65-35 between the transit authority and its advertising management firm. The breakdown of the NRG contract sends 85 percent to SEPTA.

This Philly subway stop, once known as the Pattison Avenue Station, serves a stadium complex, handling about a million rider trips annually.

Photo: NRG

Boston tried to sell station and transit-line names. But MBTA (Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority) got only one bid, from Jet Blue, which was below the asking price in 2014.

Roads and Bridges?

Transit’s cash-strapped fiscal dynamic also is common in surface transportation (roads and bridges).

Federal rules open the door, a bit, for highway sponsorships like Adopt A Highway signs and safety patrols. In Virginia, GEICO sponsors rest areas and welcome centers.

GEICO sign on I-64 in Virginia. Photo: Ken Klein

But traffic signs are off limits: “Directional signs . . . may not be used to indicate that a highway has been unofficially named to acknowledge a sponsoring entity,” says the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Last year, the feds spanked New York State for installing hundreds of “I Love NY” highway signs that deviated from uniformity standards. The State, facing loss of $14 million in federal funds, took down most of these signs.

Lawmakers have flirted with naming rights for highways and bridges. Missouri State Rep. Bart Korman introduced naming-rights legislation in 2017; the bill stalled in committee.

First Amendment

Regulation of content, which is typical in transit deals, can invite free-speech debates.

“What happens if the Trump Organization offers us $10 million to rename Federal Triangle (a subway stop) ‘The Trump Metro Stop at the Trump Hotel’?” asked Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans on WTOP in 2017.

The Archdiocese of Washington DC – citing the First Amendment — sued the local transit system when it rejected a Christmas-themed ad. A federal trial court and appeals court (July 31, 2018) upheld the transit agency’s policy not to accept ads that “promote or oppose any religion, religious practice or belief.”

After transit’s court victory, blocking the Archdiocese’s Christmas ad from buses, the church found another way to communicate its message during the 2018 holiday season: bus shelters (which operate under a separate ad agreement).

Archdiocese advertisement on bus shelter in Washington, DC. Photo: Ken Klein

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