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Selling Metro: Why It Doesn't Hurt to Ask, and Lessons from Cirque du Soleil

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Against the advice of wise counsel I am sticking with the mass transit theme. For one, I can't stop thinking about it and, two, if at first you don't succeed...

Arriving at work earlier this week I was greeted by two competing views of reality. The first came in the form of an article in the Los Angeles Times reporting that Mercedes was paying an undisclosed but sure to be ungodly sum to put its name on AEG's planned sports arena in Shanghai. While no one was talking numbers, for comparison sake the article noted that a decade ago Staples paid AEG and the other developers of the Lakers' home court nearly $120 million to put its name on the place. Apparently, in October Staples anted up again, buying the naming rights to the arena in perpetuity.

The second view came in an email from Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who in an avuncular way swiftly dispatched with my last blog urging the city fathers and mothers and Metro to consider reaching out to corporations and philanthropy in our quest to build the mass transit system Angelenos deserve. To date Zev's the only County Supervisor, City Council Member and/or Metro Board member to respond but frankly, he doesn't sound all that enthusiastic.

In relevant part Zev's gracious email reads:

Your idea is sensible, except that as a practical matter philanthropy and businesses don't contribute to these kinds of major governmental capital projects. The stations are exceedingly expensive, often running between $100 million and $200 million. Charities and businesses typically believe that these are the government's obligations, not theirs. Moreover, since they are not obligated to contribute, the success rate for these kinds of requests is zero. I wish it were different, but the facts are the facts. Let me know if my office can ever be of assistance to you.

Thanks Zev. Indeed your office can be of assistance. Here are the facts. $120 million plus for Staples. How much does Metro want for the naming rights in perpetuity for the Purple Line station serving 60,000 plus daily commuters in Century City or for its terminus in Santa Monica? What's the first rule they teach you at LAUSD's finest schools? Repeat after me: "It doesn't hurt to ask."

With fresh reports that Expo will cost more and take longer to build than promised maybe my quaint idea deserves another look. Federal stimulus funds and Measure R, the voter-approved half-cent County sales tax for mass transit and roads that demonstrated the public's support for new trains and buses, just won't pay for the whole thing. Under the circumstances, why not spend a bit of time pitching Metro to companies and philanthropists who may recognize the merits of their supporting the greenest investment around? For all involved, mass transit is a gift that keeps on giving.

Mass transit was also on my mind over the weekend when I headed downtown to take a ride on the East LA Gold Line extension. When I asked my kids whether they wanted to come along, my 10-year-old, who loves riding the IRT when we visit New York, excitedly exclaimed, "There's a subway in LA?" In our West LA neighborhood it's just Metro buses and Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus. With a pile of homework and a guitar lesson fast approaching my son begged off, but my daughters were in.

To her credit as we pulled out of our driveway my plucky fifth grader asked, "Why are we driving rather than taking the bus to get downtown?" Uhhh, good question.

Me, thinking fast, "Mom wants us back early so we can have dinner and get ready for Cirque du Soleil at the Santa Monica Pier." In case you were wondering we went as spectators, not performers, and it was great.

In terms of my own Metro cred, I ride as often as possible and though I doubt they are as enthusiastic about it as I am, I am the proud (and rare in my neighborhood) parent of kids who actually take the bus to school. Indeed, to borrow from film critic Kenneth Turan, my older ones wield their Tap Metro and Big Blue Bus passes like George Clooney in Up in the Air and have "made a science of" moving past the driver and fare box "as if ...[it] was an Olympic sport."

So what did they think? "This is really slow." "This isn't a subway." "Why doesn't it go underground?" "The LA River is ugly without water." "How come there are so few ads? "How come the only ads on the train are the same one all over, for Exitos 93.9 FM? They were right. Anyone taking a ride on Metro will quickly note that on the inside it ain't the Reading Railroad. Other than the other passengers and the traffic outside there's hardly anything to read or look at as you ride along. Is 93.9 FM really the only business in LA that feels it's worth advertising on Metro or is Metro doing a less than stellar job of selling itself to advertisers? This is LA, for God's sake, where most major thoroughfares are littered with billboards for the lap band, the latest film from Paramount, and cosmetic surgery. One positive I guess is that my still mostly monolingual daughters are now flawlessly chanting 93.9 FM's tag line, "La más grande variedad de los 80's, 90's y Actual."

The only other ads we saw on the train were for Metro. Huh? We're already riding the train. Why are they advertising for Metro to people who are already on board? And what's the return on Metro's investment anyhow in Metro signage for its own trains and buses?

Which brings me back to Cirque du Soleil. What do Cirque and Metro have in common other than the fact that you can take Metro there? Not much. But Cirque hails from Montreal, which boasts a terrific mass transit system (quiet trains with rubber tires), and Cirque's new show KOOZA is a merchandising and corporate sponsor's dream that could teach Metro a thing or two. Everything, including your seat, is either for sale or is underwritten by a roster of A-list companies - AT&T, American Express, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, I Shares, and Sun Life Financial. Would you like a cap, mask, t-shirt, and program with those nachos?

Maybe it's time Metro took a look at Cirque's merchandizing and marketing playbook, and maybe it's time Metro actually asked the business and philanthropic community whether it wants to buy the naming rights to that station, train, or seat you are not yet sitting in?

There's money in them there trains, stations, and blank subway walls. Sure, the idea of asking for it from savvy businesses, foundations and advertisers is daunting, but those that don't ask will never know whether they missed any. Not all of the pieces of LA's mass transit puzzle that need to be built (like the new Mariachi Plaza and Soto underground Gold Line stations) involve the massive sums that Zev wrote me about. All I am saying is, if there's money on the table we shouldn't be leaving it there. A million here and a million there and soon enough you're talking real money.

As for me, I'm not holding my breath while waiting to hear back about their naming rights sales plan from the City Council and Metro Board. Instead, I'm doing all of my holiday shopping at the Metro store and urging you to do the same. Maybe if enough of us do, Metro will be able to afford to build that elusive subway to the sea.