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Et tu, St. Pete? (Media Sponsorship).

From a marketing standpoint, slapping a company's name on the side of a sports arena is a good idea. United Airlines has Chicago's United Center. Bank One has Phoenix's Bank One Ballpark. Even Enron had Enron Field in Houston until the company tanked. So why should the St. Petersburg Times be begrudged a St. Pete Times Forum?

The Times announced in September it bought naming rights to Tampa Bay's local ice hockey arena--a deal, the paper later revealed, that would cost $33 million over 12 years. In exchange, the paper would get all the "advertising" that comes with having its name on an oft-mentioned sports venue and dozens of surrounding street signs. And it would all be in Tampa, where the Times is fervently battling the Tampa Tribune--the Tribune would have to mention its arch rival every time it covered an NHL Lightning game, concert or convention in the former Tampa Ice Palace.

But St. Pete got few accolades for its business acumen. Instead, the first newspaper in the nation with its name on a sports arena was quickly immersed in a complex ethics debate. That debate became all the richer for involving the Times, which is owned by the Poynter Institute, widely considered an arbiter of journalism standards.

Can a newspaper with a financial stake in a publicly funded arena impartially cover its management and money issues? Does having the newspaper's name on that arena imply it endorses the teams and events in the building? Will readers assume a blurred line between business and journalism?

Paul Tash, the Times' editor and president, quickly assured his staff and readers that the contract wouldn't affect the editorial department or arena coverage. Still, reaction to the news ranged from delight to amusement to dismay "I would say outside of journalism circles, it's been uniformly positive. We've had terrific reaction," Tash says. "Inside of journalism circles, it's been somewhat mixed."

The Poynter Institute's chief ethicist called the deal a "risky maneuver." The Tampa Tribune's publisher issued a sharply worded memo questioning the Times' ability to cover news objectively about the forum. One newsie wrote in to Jim Romenesko's MediaNews Weblog (part of the Poynter site) to scoff, "So the ethical watchdog of Big Media buys the naming rights to a hockey arena.... Are you bleepin' kidding me?" Even the Times' own columnists criticized their bosses for everything including shortening the paper's name to "St. Pete Times" for arena display.

Tash doesn't see what all the fuss is about. Media companies have been making sponsorship deals for years, he says, buying signs on outfield walls and sponsoring local festivals. Papers have also long finessed the balancing act of covering their big advertisers. Though the Times was the first to buy naming rights to a sports venue, Tash says the issues aren't new. "We have essentially bought some advertising," he says. "I don't see it as any different in kind as any other sponsorship deals we and other newspapers have."

Corporate sponsorship is one of the hottest business trends. This year corporations will spend more than $9.5 billion to attach their names to sporting events, festivals, arenas and anything else they can think of, says Bill Chipps, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago-based newsletter.

Media companies have always been active corporate sponsors. A recent IEG survey of more than 2,200 events, sports teams and festivals nationwide showed 38 percent had at least one media sponsor. A quarter of those sponsors were newspapers.

The 1999 Los Angeles Times' Staples Center scandal--in which the newspaper agreed to share ad revenue from an issue of its Sunday magazine with the Staples Center sports arena and faced a newsroom revolt--made media companies keenly aware of the ethical entanglements sports deals could create, Chipps says. But the L.A. Times debacle did little to slow the sponsorship train.

In fact, in the last five years, newspaper publishers have gotten bolder. "We've seen newspapers step up and sign the naming rights to outdoor arenas," Chipps says. "They'll sponsor to get their name out there. They'll also sponsor to get tickets to entertainment events for their advertisers."

The San Francisco Chronicle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Albuquerque Journal have all recently paid to have their names on outdoor amphitheaters. With newspapers snatching up entertainment venues, sports sites were inevitable, Chipps says.

But no one suspected the paper to do it would be the St. Petersburg Times. The same Times that won six Pulitzer Prizes? Poynter's Times? The Times where a columnist once said reporters couldn't "so much as take a cup of coffee from somebody we were interviewing" lest they be compromised?

Bob Steele, the Poynter Institute's ethics maven, says that while newspaper deals, like the outdoor amphitheater ones, may have raised ethical questions, St. Pete's announcement is in another league because of its size and magnitude.

He says the $33 million deal is so big, so costly, so entwined with ongoing news stories and city officials, that it crosses a perceived line that previous sponsorship deals did not.

"I believe when a newspaper takes the step the St. Petersburg Times has taken it creates not only some sinkholes, but some quicksand," he says. "How do you cover yourself over time when you are a big part of the story?"

Louis Hodges, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, says one would be hard-pressed to find an ethicist who would not have concerns about the Times deal--even though other papers have done similar things before. "What they've done is not unusual. My concern is I expect the St. Pete Times to be unusual," Hodges says. "Really good newspapers ought to stand above this sort of thing. The good ones do."

Steele says the Times bumbled its first ethical challenge--covering the initial story of the deal. On September 4, the paper ran a business story announcing the Times would be "the first newspaper in the nation to place its name on a major sports and entertainment arena or stadium." The story contained no critical quotes and did not disclose the financial terms of the agreement because the publishers and arena owners wanted to keep the dollar figures secret.

Over the next few days, Times reporters wrote about local political officials demanding to hear the financial details. On September 7, the Times filled in the blanks after the parties caved and released the numbers.

Though the situation was awkward, Tash says his staff "did well" covering the story and remaining objective. But Steele and other critics question whether Times reporters were as aggressive in digging for these facts as they were in 1996, when Tropicana bought the naming rights to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays stadium, and in 1998 when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made a similar deal with Raymond James Financial.

Steve Weaver, president and publisher of the competing Tampa Tribune, says his predecessor at the Tribune was offered the naming rights to the arena five years ago, but turned down the offer to avoid the ethical issues. However, the Tribune is not completely without financial entanglements. The paper is one of 16 sponsors of the Bucs, Tampa's NFL team. Weaver wonders, "Will the Times report on why a stadium that ranks fourth in the nation [in attendance] is not making money?"

The newspaper industry is filled with companies that have dabbled in the business of sports, with varying success. The Tribune Co., parent of the Chicago bune, has owned the Chicago Cubs for decades. Media conglomerates, including the Walt Disney Co., Time Warner and Fox, all have investments in professional teams. Though the occasional ethical issue arises, most companies seemingly straddle the line between sports and journalism with ease.

Earlier this year, Belo ended its brief and rocky relationship with the Dallas Mavericks pro basketball team. Belo, owner of the Dallas Morning News and several other newspapers and television stations, bought a 12 percent stake in the team and its soon-to-be-built arena in 1999 (See "Fair Game?" October 1999). The company did so over the protests of Morning News newsroom staffers, who saw it as a conflict of interest. Earlier this year, Belo sold its shares to the team's owner for $27 million.

With arenas selling sponsorship and naming rights at a record rate, there are plenty of opportunities for media companies to pick up where Belo left off. That is if things go smoothly in St. Pete.

Tash says he and the Times staff know the journalism world is carefully watching them, assessing whether the paper's business and editorial needs balance. "I think I welcome that question," he says. "Because I think we'll answer it in the affirmative."

Heyboer, an AJR contributing writer, is a reporter for Newark's Star-Ledger.
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Title Annotation:advertising ethics of St. Petersburg Times
Author:Heyboer, Kelly
Publication:American Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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