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Sports Sponsorship Risks Flip in LA

The risk to brands of a sports sponsorship is that an athlete may end up causing reputational damage by bad behavior. In Los Angeles, the risk may be coming not from athletes but from university administrators and coaches.

United Airlines agreed in January 2018 to acquire the naming rights to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for $70 million. The naming rights are owned by the University of Southern California, acquired in 2013 as a result of the owners of the Coliseum (the state and the county) not performing significant upgrades to the facility as required by USC’s lease.

Despite having only one permanent tenant – USC’s football team – the Coliseum’s naming rights are relatively lucrative. Foremost, this is because of the national TV exposure USC’s football team gets, even in its off years. Also figuring in would be the history of the Coliseum. It’s a National Historic Landmark, having been home to the Trojans since 1923. At various times, it has also been the home the Rams and the Raiders of the NFL, the Dodgers of MLB, two Summer Olympics, two Super Bowls, UCLA, and – who could forget – the LA Express of the USFL. And not to be overlooked is its location under the normal approach path into LAX, able to showcase a United logo to incoming passengers of all airlines.

The Risk Flips

At first, the reaction was quite negative against United’s sponsorship. It came right around the time as a number of United PR gaffes, including the infamous dragging of a passenger off a plane and the death of a pet by placing it in an overhead bin. It seemed USC was getting the bad end of deal by getting into bed with United.

Let’s move the clock ahead a year. The United renaming goes into effect this Fall, as a fully renovated Coliseum opens for the football season with the Trojans and (for one more temporary year) the NFL’s Rams. The situation has really flipped. Here is what United is now associated with in terms of the Coliseum’s main tenant, USC.

Less serious than the above, but important to the value of the sponsorship, is a steep decline in the performance USC’s football team. Both the coach and the AD are overmatched, and little has been done to address the problems with the team. This is leading to a feeling of revolt among the boosters and fans. It could lead to the first year of the United sponsorship seeing the Coliseum half-empty for USC games, and many fans booing their own coaches. This could mean fewer appearances on ABC or ESPN, and more on the PAC12 Network. Try and find that on your TV’s program guide.

The Payoff

The bright spot, with the Rams in the Super Bowl next week, is that United may get the benefit of a Super Bowl champion for one season. This is before the Rams move to their own stadium near LAX (a stadium as yet without a naming sponsor).

As we see above, the risk can sometimes go both ways with sports or celebrity sponsorships. With naming rights, which typically run for a decade or more, the period of exposure to this risk can be lengthy – and even start before the name goes on the building.

UPDATE: Adding to USC’s woes since this was published is its implication in the college admissions bribery scandal that made headlines in March, including a key athletic administrator and current/past USC coaches.

[Disclosure: I am a graduate, and big fan, of USC]

David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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