2013-09-11 / Front Page

Selling the rights to Friday nights

By Jim McConnell

Manchester High is one of six high schools that sell ads around their scoreboards. 
Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Obsever Manchester High is one of six high schools that sell ads around their scoreboards. Jim McConnell/Chesterfield Obsever Nearly everything in athletics, it seems – from popular footwear and uniform styles to equipment and on-field strategy – eventually trickles down from the professional ranks to colleges and high schools.

Can the sale of naming rights for local athletic facilities be far behind?

Administrators at Richmond Christian School hope not. The local private school announced earlier this year plans to launch a football program that will begin play in the 2014 season. But there’s a catch: In addition to uniforms and equipment, the school needs to make $30,000 in upgrades to its existing stadium.

“You’ve got to start from the ground up,” said John Scorsone, who knows better than anyone at Richmond Christian what such an effort requires; he also served as athletic director at Hampton Christian when that school started a football program.

So when one of the school’s parents presented Scorsone with a copy of an Observer article detailing how several Chesterfield County schools had entered into sponsorship agreements with a Midlothian-based sports marketing franchise, Scorsone realized it was an opportunity Richmond Christian couldn’t afford to ignore. To get the stadium ready, the school needs to purchase goal posts, a scoreboard and other items to bring its football stadium up to acceptable standards. And the clock is ticking.

Scorsone met with Tom Carmichael, owner of the local SportsImage franchise, and they came up with a plan to pursue a naming rights sponsorship for the school’s athletic complex.

Carmichael said last week that he’s looking for a corporate sponsor willing to commit to a seven-year deal with three option years. Such a deal could conceivably net the school as much as $25,000.

“That’s a starting point for negotiations,” Carmichael said. “Who knows where it’s going to go?”

While the scale is dramatically different, the sale of stadium naming rights has become a lucrative revenue stream for many professional sports franchises – none more so than the New York Mets, whose 20-year, $400 million deal with Citigroup remains the richest in American sports history.

Cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia and New York have followed suit by selling corporate naming rights sponsorships for public parks, bus routes and commuter train lines.

Nowadays, even ivory tower academics have a price. Last year, Harvard Law School named a newly built restroom after a graduate who donated $100,000.

Schools in football-crazed states Texas and Pennsylvania, which draw massive crowds to their Friday night games, were the first to cash in on stadium naming rights on the high school level.

Carmichael has heard of only one such deal at a Virginia public high school. George Mason

High School in the city of Falls Church had a naming rights sponsorship with a local Cadillac dealership, but that’s no longer in effect.

Neighboring Arlington County doesn’t allow any corporate advertising on school property, Carmichael said.

“They have plenty of money and they don‘t want to commercialize high school sports,” he added. “I think that’s where you’ll get push back.”

That hasn’t been an issue so far in Chesterfield, where budget cuts have shifted most of the burden of paying for high school sports from taxpayers to school booster clubs.

“We do a lot of corporate sponsorship and we haven’t had any complaints,” said Ted Salmon, director of student activities at Cosby High. “People realize that’s a big source of money for us to be able to run the programs we have.”

Carmichael currently has sponsorship agreements with six of the county’s 10 high schools: Clover Hill, Manchester, Thomas Dale, James River, L.C. Bird and Midlothian.

Carmichael signs up local businesses to purchase advertising space on the schools’ scoreboards and other locations inside their football stadiums.

For example, there are nine advertising panels on the Clover Hill football scoreboard. Corporate sponsors paid $3,500 each for signs installed at the top of the board; others paid $2,800 apiece to get a sign placed along the bottom.

Carmichael, whose typical commission is 20 to 30 percent, negotiates the terms of each deal – school administrators have the right to refuse advertisements they deem inappropriate – and the schools get the money.

“He handles everything; that allows me to concentrate on running the day-to-day operations of our athletic department,” said Roger Cassem, director of student activities at Manchester High. “It’s a win-win situation.”

So far, financial support from boosters and additional advertising revenue has enabled Chesterfield’s high schools to avoid having to resort to a “pay for play” system.

For example, all high school athletes in Spotsylvania County are required to pay a per-season fee of $150 to compete for their schools’ sports teams.

Many local coaches have expressed concern that if such a system was adopted in Chesterfield, it would disproportionately harm schools located in less affluent areas of the county.

But Salmon thinks similar equity concerns would be a significant hurdle for any local public school looking to make a stadium naming rights deal.

“Unless the county was involved and did it for all schools, I can’t see it happening,” he said.

That’s one area in which Richmond Christian has a significant advantage over its public school counterparts. As a private school, it wouldn’t require government approval to ink a naming rights sponsorship.

Because high school football stadiums are taxpayer-owned, the county’s School Board and Board of Supervisors would have to sign off on any agreement to rename a stadium for a corporate sponsor.

Carmichael said he’d love an opportunity to sit down with county leaders and show them the potential revenue that could be gleaned from selling naming rights for all 10 of Chesterfield’s high school football stadiums.

“I’m just happy we’re having a conversation about it,” he said. “Walk into a football stadium at the University of Virginia or the University of Richmond and look at all the advertising they’re doing. Obviously it would be a scaled-down version for high schools, but it’s still an achievable goal.”

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