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Nicholas Goldberg: When bathrooms have naming rights, has the brand gone too far?


It took me a few moments outside the restroom at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles before I fully realized that a fundraising genius had in fact sold the naming rights to the restroom.

It seemed inconceivable, but it was there in big letters above the entrance: “Lefton Family Restrooms.”

On the one hand, good for the Lefton family for taking the initiative to help the Music Center pay to renovate its place. Cities need people who support the arts, including the less glamorous and more functional parts of the underlying infrastructure.

But brand bathrooms? Really?

Opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.

Naming rights had already occurred to me that day as I had, for the first time, passed the Crypto.com Arena, the structure formerly known as Staples Center. In November, Crypto.com bought the 20-year naming rights to the arena for $700 million.

That, in turn, reminded me of SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, named (in exchange for $30 million a year) for SoFi Technologies Inc., as well as the deal struck last year to name the Intuit Dome again. in construction. Earlier this month, it was announced that the Forum, the former home of the 55-year-old Lakers, would become the KIA Forum, after the South Korean automaker.

Of course, putting a philanthropic donor’s name on the Music Center toilet isn’t the same as selling two decades of stadium naming rights to the highest bidder in a profit-making business deal.

But the concept is vaguely the same. Donate money and smack your name for all to see. In addition to the bathrooms, the Music Center, in its 2019 renovation, offered donors the naming rights to the plaza bar, its restaurant, and a new “welcome center.”

Sometimes it feels like there won’t be anything left that doesn’t bear the name of a big donor or corporate conglomerate. Sometimes it seems like the buildings, streets, and institutions of Los Angeles and other American cities are just giant marketing opportunities and potential revenue generators.

People are getting used to the unintended comedy of names as goofy as Minute Maid Park or Guaranteed Rate Field. Names like FedEx Field stick out of the tongue. How long before selling the name of the teams themselves? Houston Astroburgers, anyone?

And the naming craze goes beyond stadiums (and bathrooms). In 2010, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority changed the name of the Pattinson Avenue subway station in Philadelphia to AT&T Station. It has now been renamed again to NRG Energy, for another $5 million.

You think it can’t happen here? In 2016, the Los Angeles Metro agreed to allow the sale of naming rights for light rail lines, bus stops, subway stations, and parking lots. Two months later, thankfully, he repealed the controversial plan, citing legal concerns.

According to Wired, Christie’s auctioned off the right to name a new species of shark in 2007. The proceeds went to environmental causes. Are you OK?

What will be next? Can I sell my child’s naming rights?

Whoops. Someone already thought of it.

In 2015, Lavonne Drummond, an unemployed Arkansas woman, solicited bids on eBay for the right to name her unborn son, hoping to raise money to repair her Dodge Caravan and buy school supplies. for his other children. The winning bid was $6,800, but the bidder ultimately refused to pay and she presumably named the child herself.

It’s reminiscent of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 novel “Infinite Jest”, which is set in a future where years are no longer denoted by sequential numbers but are sold in exchange for grants. Much of the action takes place in the “year of the adult underwear addict”. When he wrote it, it sounded clever – not prophetic.

Companies are willing to pay millions for naming rights because, as one consultancy puts it, they “develop brand equity and drive maximum return on investment.” [return on investment]” through repeated gratuitous mentions of the company or product, familiarization with the company logo and the introduction of the brand name into ordinary everyday conversation. Museums, universities, and nonprofit performing arts centers offer them to sweeten the demand for big-budget projects.

What happened to naming places and institutions after historical heroes and figures in society, such as university presidents, accomplished scientists, civil rights leaders, politicians and movie stars? sport ? (And naming transit stations after the street they’re on?)

It is true that we are now in the process of UN– naming streets and institutions for heroes we no longer consider heroic. But it also happens with naming rights. Remember when the Houston Astros had to pay $2 million to buy out their naming rights to the ballpark from scandal-ridden Enron Corp.? And when Walmart heiress Paige Laurie’s name was scratched from the stadium her parents gave to the University of Missouri after she was accused of cheating at USC?

And don’t get me started on the now-disgraced Sackler family that makes Oxycontin. In December, the Metropolitan Museum of Art removed the Sackler name from the museum’s “Sackler Wing” and six other exhibition spaces. The Louvre did the same in 2019.

Of course, it would be dishonest not to recognize that we have always named certain libraries, museums and universities – and even certain new biological species – after donors and patrons. The Music Center has long been named after the wealthy families who built it, including the Ahmansons, Tapers and Chandlers. Boston’s hallowed Fenway Park, incidentally, was named after a local real estate company.

This naming affair is therefore not really new. It’s just out of control.

I’m glad there are bathrooms in the Music Center plaza – permanent bathrooms that aren’t set up in trailers, after all. I don’t want to compare a philanthropic family to a for-profit juggernaut like Enron or Crypto.com.

But the tendency to name is tedious.

In a bizarre twist, 13 former University of Wisconsin business school donors agreed in 2008 to give a total of $85 million in return for a promise that the school would not sell its name for at least less than 20 years old.

There is an idea that I could put behind. Nope– naming rights.

Because not everything needs to be marked.

@Nick_Goldberg




Los Angeles Times

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