A Tennessee judge surprised many in the sports world this month [ed: July, the time the piece was written] by stopping Memphis officials from spending any public money to build a $250-million arena for its new NBA franchise without holding a referendum.
His ruling should force the NBA to rethink its opposition to a promising alternative-funding mechanism that could save taxpayers in Memphis and other U.S. cities hundreds of millions of dollars.
FedEx reportedly offered to pay as much as $120 million to call the team the Memphis Express and attire players in its orange and purple colors. The NBA said no. Pro basketball, like the other three major sports leagues, has an unofficial policy against corporate team names.
It's an anachronistic, misguided position. Rather than allow the sports industry to cut off that possible revenue stream, elected officials in cities building new arenas or stadiums should require that the leagues consider corporate names for the teams as well as the buildings, to minimize the public's costs.
Not a completely new idea Undoubtedly, any proposal to replace traditional team nicknames with corporate ones would be criticized for contributing to the increasing commercialization of modern sports. But, ironically, the concept actually has historic origins.
The NBA's original Fort Wayne franchise -- now in Detroit -- was named for the Zollner Piston company. And the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers' logo bears more than a passing resemblance to that of U.S. Steel.
The corporate team concept is widely accepted in other countries. There are some sports franchises abroad, such as Japanese baseball's Nippon Ham Fighters, that don't even include the home city in their name.
It's a financing option that at least needs to be weighed by any relocating franchise, particularly one -- such as Memphis -- that is asking taxpayers to help fund a new arena.
In fact, maybe that choice should also be put to a referendum so the public can decide whether keeping the current nickname is worth losing out on $100 million in private cash.
Freshen up those identities Some current franchises seem prime candidates for change, notably those with outdated appellations such as the NBA's Seattle Supersonics -- obsolete now that Boeing is leaving the Emerald City. Selling the names could also be a valuable ancillary revenue source for franchises that have not been able to compete financially with richer teams, such as baseball's Florida Marlins and Kansas City Royals.
Or the money could go toward a subsidy to set aside lower-price tickets for fans who now can't afford to pay the skyrocketing cost of attending the games.
As pro sports have already sold practically everything else, it makes little sense to stop at team names. Further commercialization may not be ideal, but it's better than spending more public dough.
John Solomon, a New York-based freelance journalist, often writes on sports policy.