A number of brands, including Barstool Sports, might get the chance to score naming rights to the new billion-dollar home of the Buffalo Bills.
Highmark Health Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York took over as naming rights sponsor for the renamed Highmark Stadium before the 2021 season.
Under the current deal, Highmark holds the right of first refusal for a new facility, said spokeswoman Amber Hartmann. But the health care company is not sure it wants to continue as naming rights partner at the Bills’ planned new $1.4 billion stadium, which could open in time for the 2026 season.
“It would be an entirely new contract…It would not be the same contract that would carry over,” Hartmann told Front Office Sports on Thursday.
The planned stadium is generating significant opposition. Highmark will make its final decisions as it gets more information from the franchise.
“I guess we’ll see what happens in the future,” said Hartmann.
Highmark declined to comment on how much it’s paying to stamp its name on the Bills’ current 71,000-seat stadium. But sources pegged the deal at $5 million annually over 10 years.
Coming off back-to-back AFC East titles, the Bills are Super Bowl favorites with Josh Allen at quarterback. Given the anticipation over the team’s first new stadium in 50 years, Highmark could be wary of paying significantly higher fees.
Sports marketer John Jiloty thinks the Bills could double naming rights revenue at the brand-new facility. That could result in a $100 million-plus deal for the Bills.
“The job that the team has done over the last couple of years to really build back to where they were, makes it a hugely valuable property from a naming rights perspective,” said Jiloty, senior vice president for the Buffalo-based Martin Group ad agency. “The timing is perfect given where they are — and where they are headed — as a team.”
New Era Previously Pulled Out of Bills Deal
If Highmark walks, it would be pulling out roughly halfway through the 10-year deal.
New Era Cap LLC, the Bills’ previous naming rights partner, also withdrew about halfway through its contract for financial reasons.
New Era signed a seven-year deal worth $4 million annually in 2016. But the Buffalo-based company asked to be released from the deal in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged its business — and the team agreed.
Originally christened Rich Stadium in 1973, the current Orchard Park venue has been variously called Bills Stadium, New Era Field, and Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The 49-year-old facility is the fourth-oldest venue in the NFL behind the Chicago Bears’ Soldier Field (1924), the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field (1957), and the Kansas City Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium (1972).
There are several Buffalo-based firms that could step up if Highmark drops out, including Rich Products, M&T Bank and Kaleida Health.
Local food giant Rich’s held naming rights to Rich Stadium from 1973-1997, including the glory years when Jim Kelly led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances.
But Rich’s is not interested in a second deal, according to spokesman Kevin Aman.
Both M&T and Kaleida declined to comment.
Barstool Campaigned for Naming Rights in 2020
If Highmark wants out, the Bills could also pivot to bidders like Barstool that publicly campaigned for naming rights two years ago.
At the time, Barstool founder Dave Portnoy wanted to rename Bills Stadium “Barstool Sports Park.”
Tweeted Portnoy in 2020: “I think if we let the people of Buffalo vote on whether they’d be proud to call Bills Stadium ‘Barstool Sports Park’ (I like park more than stadium), we’d get close to 90% approval. You can’t control the 10% losers crowd.”
While Portnoy has publicly ripped NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Barstool’s outlaw brand could appeal to the team’s rowdy “Bills Mafia” fans. Barstool could not be reached for comment.
She’d be willing to pay the Bills up to $4 million to $5 million annually. In return, she wants to rename the venue “TUSHY Stadium” — and hold an annual “Toilet Bowl” event. She also wants to outfit all toilets and luxury boxes with TUSHY’s line of bidets.
“We really think it would make a statement: ‘TUSHY Stadium’ with an annual ‘Toilet Bowl’ event. It would be so much fun,” Agrawal said. “Who wouldn’t want to go to an event called the Toilet Bowl? We’d get comedians there and do a fun comedy show and halftime.”
Emerging Companies Buying Up Naming Rights
Publicity stunt? Probably. But the sports naming rights business is changing quickly.
In the early days, blue-chip airlines, beverages, and automotive brands controlled naming rights to sports stadiums and arenas.
Now there’s an influx of emerging companies that view naming rights as an expensive, but effective, branding and awareness play.
They include SoFi Technologies, the online personal finance company sponsoring the Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams and Chargers’ $5.5 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood. SoFi is paying $30 million a year over 20 years.
There’s cryptocurrency exchange FTX, which signed a 19-year, $135 million deal to rebrand the Miami Heat’s FTX Arena.
And in the biggest deal yet, Crypto.com will pay $700 million over 20 years to rename the iconic Staples Center in Los Angeles as Crypto.com Arena.
But these long-term deals are high-risk, high-reward propositions for sponsors.
Some partnerships are iconic like the New England Patriots’ deal with Procter & Gamble for Gillette Stadium, which kicked off in 2002. The Patriots and P&G recently extended their deal through the 2031 football season.
Financial difficulties can cause companies to abandon ship. New Era asked out of its Bills deal after laying off roughly one-third of its workforce in western New York.
Some deals end in disaster such as the Houston Astros’ 30-year, $100 million deal for Enron Field in 2000 — which lasted only two years before Enron went bankrupt.
Attorney Rich Brand, head of the sports group at ArentFox Schiff, helped negotiate the deal for SoFi Stadium, home of Super Bowl LVI.
Many new, relatively unknown firms have “massive amounts” of cash on hand from multiple funding rounds and public offerings, he said. They use naming rights to raise their brand awareness — fast.
“I will say this about SoFi Stadium. How many people do you think knew much about SoFi before the naming rights deal?” asked Brand. “And how many people know about SoFi now?”