The Steel City is in a bad mood. Hell, I am, too.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are going to be playing their home games at Acrisure Stadium?!
Acrisure, a FinTech company worth $23 billion, will pay the Steelers between $10 and $20 million yearly for 20 years for naming rights to their stadium, which is a significant increase over the $2.85 million Heinz has paid annually since 2001. Ben Roethlisberger was among the chorus of ex-Steelers who expressed their disdain for the loss of Heinz’s sponsorship.
Nostalgia has a weird place in the topic of stadium names. Lambeau Field, Paul Brown Stadium, and Soldier Field are the only three NFL stadiums without naming rights. Baseball has 10 stadiums without naming rights deals, and Madison Square Garden remains the NBA’s lone holdout from having a corporate stadium sponsor (as it rightly should). The inaction on that front is the soundest decision James Dolan has ever made. Conversely, Pittsburgh got has gotten attached to Heinz, a condiment manufacturer, over the last two decades.
This excerpt from Pittsburgh’s Action News 4 summarizes how crestfallen Pittsburgh locals are about Heinz Field erasure.
“I don’t know why they would do that,” one fan told Pittsburgh’s Action News 4. “Why would they change it from Heinz. It’s a tradition, and it’s a Pittsburgh tradition, right?”
“When you think of Pittsburgh, [Heinz Field is] what you think of,” another fan said.
Paul Emanuele, a lifelong Pittsburgher, stopped by to see the iconic Heinz Field signs one more time.
If the Steelers haven’t cashed the check from Acrisure, it might not be too late to turn back. Heinz is headquartered in Pittsburgh, and the thought of outsourcing naming rights to a FinTech company based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, feels blasphemous. But stadium naming rights deals have become an additional source of income that most franchises can’t afford to sacrifice.
There are rules to naming rights. Stadiums should always be referred to by their birth names, which is now usually a corporate sponsor. Heinz Field isn’t special in the hearts of Steelers fans because they have a visceral connection to Heinz ketchup, it’s because it’s the only name Atricurse Field has been known by until now.
No more stadiums or arenas are named after public figures, sports icons, or geographical oddities. Three Rivers Stadium had a name inspired by the Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio Rivers that converge in Pittsburgh. One problem with renaming your stadium after it’s been a synonymous brand for the first few decades of its life is that everyone winds up calling it by its old name. Additionally, pick a sponsor whose name rolls off the tongue. Acrisure sounds like a Wizarding World dark arts curse or self-doubt creeping in to ask me “are you sure?” before doing anything bold.
Another commandment of the naming rights rulebook is that the brand associated with your stadium matters too. In the late-90s, then-Enron chairman Kenneth Lay played a profound role in the funding towards a downtown Astros Stadium and agreed to shovel over $100 million over 30 years for naming rights. Once Enron was implicated in a massive fraud scandal, the Enron name was quickly replaced with a less polarizing company, Minute Maid. You don’t want another Enron on your hands, but at least they made sense as a Texas-based company.
Meanwhile, Acrisure has shady connections to pay-for-play loopholes in New Jersey politics. For instance, the company pumped $100,000 in campaign donations to lawmakers since 2015, often donated days before they voted on lucrative Acrisure contracts, according to Gothamist/WNYC. There’s a reason Nationals fans pushed back against its stadium being named ExxonMobil Park.
You can‘t go wrong with links to beverage companies unless they’re trying to prevent obesity, and then everyone gets up in arms. Miller Brewing Company’s $40 million deal in March of 1996 helped solidify funding for the stadium being built to replace Milwaukee County Stadium. In 2020, the American Life insurance company outbid Miller Brewing. The new name American Family Field sounds more like an ode to American Family Feud at first glance, which makes the new title even more difficult to stomach.
The Carrier Dome in Syracuse was named after a home appliance company. It’s hard to tell if they got their money’s worth though. Few people actually know Carrier Global exists and the ones that do probably think it’s cute they named their company after Syracuse’s iconic arena. Syracuse modernized their naming rights with the JMA Wireless Dome, just like the Lakers dumped Staples Center to become Crypto.com Center (yuck). This obsession with stadium naming rights is the only acceptable form of corporate brand loyalty.