Obama Field

12/26/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Roger I. Abrams Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern University; Author

Consider the perfidy of it all: Citigroup suddenly hits the skids, receives a "bailout" because it is too big a financial institution to fail, lays off thousands of employees, and still decides to retain the naming rights to the new baseball stadium for the New York Metropolitans. Nine out of ten persons polled think this is the height of arrogance and stupidity. The "pundocracy," of course, is in an uproar, feeding on the raw meat of this scandal. How can Citi lay off tens of thousands of its loyal workers and still fork over four hundred million dollars over twenty years to see its name up in lights in Queens? What happened to common sense? Have we lost that as well, even as our stock portfolios have tumbled towards oblivion?

I must admit that solving the current credit/mortgage/securities/unemployment crisis is, as President-elect Obama might say, above my pay grade, but I am as angry about our deflating 401Ks as anyone, although not quite as angry as the growing horde of men and women now out of work. What a fine mess we're in! Those charged with saving our country from the present and coming disaster are working hard at it, but all we know with confidence is that the goal line lies beyond the horizon.

As a Sports Law professor who writes books and blogs on the business of sports, I can report that the American sports enterprise and commercial sponsors have had a cozy relationship for a very long time. Photographs of early Twentieth Century ballparks show snazzy advertisements on the outfield walls for the local haberdashery and cigar store. (My favorite is the huge ad on the wall of the Huntington Avenue Grounds in Boston for Mike McGreevey's bar on Columbus Avenue. His establishment was called the "Third Base Saloon," with the sales pitch that everyone must stop at "Third" on their way "Home.")

We are rightfully angry when the CEOs of what are currently the Big Three automakers each fly their own private jets down to DC, hats in hand, seeking a share of the largess that they will use in any way they see fit. Apparently, they don't teach a course entitled "Shame" in business schools. Next time, they should take the bus. As penitence, GM has announced that it will not advertise during this season's Super Bowl. This will leave plenty of room for twenty more Budweiser commercials which are funnier in any case.

But should Citi and other similarly situated businesses forego their business connections to sports? One must assume that the decision to affix a corporate name to a stadium was made originally for good business reasons. Few stadiums forego the opportunity to be named, with Yankee Stadium the most significant exception. Although Fenway Park retains its baptismal name from 1912, the ownership has sold off large sections of the stadium to naming sponsors. The marketing value of a stadium naming opportunity depends, of course, on a variety of factors, including its price. Now that we, the American taxpayers, own a part of Citi in exchange for our timely billions, shouldn't we want our company to make some money? If it was a good business decision to buy naming rights months ago, why has it suddenly turned foolish?

Some will argue that this is simply a matter of impropriety, and there is something to that. The Mets as owners of the stadium could certainly use a few extra millions to buy the services of one or more additional superstars who will finally allow them to bridge the gap between their mostly successful regular seasons and the post-season Nirvana that always seems just out of reach. The newly-acquired ballplayers will then spend their riches to stimulate the economy, buying an appropriate mansion - that will help the depressed economy -- and hopefully give a good portion away to needy people thrown out of work by Citibank.

One thing the last few months should have taught us is that there are no easy answers to the economic muddle the Bush Administration will leave us. The man who traded Sammy Sosa to the Chicago Cubs and then ran the Texas Rangers into the ground has shown us once again that economics is not his strong suit. When the President and his dirt bike leave DC, a new team will take the field. I doubt the designated hitters of the Obama economic team will want the companies we now own to stop playing the game. (Certainly, "our" companies should pass on the ridiculous salaries for their CEOs and the parachutes that seem more platinum than gold.) We want our companies to continue to be players in the economic system so we can get our money back. If that means naming a stadium or placing a timely ad right after halftime, then they should do it. Has anyone thought about naming the new stadium for our new president? After all, in a few months, he will be the person signing off on the bailout de jour. Consistent with his athletic preferences, I would recommend that the first Obama naming opportunity be a basketball court.