Friday, March 11, 2011

When ideals and viability collide

On Tuesday evening, the Provo School Board approved a renovation of the Provo High School football complex.  Anyone who has driven by the stadium knows that this sort of project is long overdue, particularly when Bulldog stadium is compared to its neighbor up the hill at Timpview High School.  The challenge for Provo School District is how to fund capital projects like this one, in the face of ever shrinking budgets and a reeling economy.  Not surprisingly then, Tuesday evening's conversation about the renovation at Provo High was dominated by talk of where the money will come from.  The Board of Education has committed $125,000 on the front end of the project and has agreed to subsidize the cost of replacing the track that surrounds the field, but falls far short of the nearly $1.5 million that is needed for the two proposed phases of the project. The Board's solution?  Sell the naming rights for the stadium and field to the highest bidder.

At first glance something like this seems like a fine idea and common practice in the world of sports.  After all, we could probably all rattle of a list of 5 or 10 athletic venues named after corporations (e.g. The Staples Center in LA, The TD Boston Garden, or Energy Solutions Arena in Salt Lake City).  The sense among Board Members on Tuesday was that everyone wins.  The district brings in a large sum of cash, student-athletes have a great venue to play in, community members have something to be proud of, and a local business gets publicity.  But, it seems like a slippery slope to me and one that leads down an increasingly problematic path where, eventually, educational ideals are likely to be compromised (as evidenced by this extreme case from a Sacramento School District).  Of course, community businesses have always been partners with local schools when it comes to athletics.  They hang banners at the fields, have their names in the program, and donate goods at reduced cost for concessions.  But, in large part, it avoids major problems and conflicts of interest because of its scale.  The banners are for the gas station down the street, the concessions come from the local grocery store, and the programs are paid for by the trophy shop around the corner.  In other words, the money put up is small and those contributing are people that have at least a small stake in what happens at the school on Friday nights.

Provo District, however, is headed down a different path by asking for million dollar donations.  That sort of invitation brings in a much different bidder--one with deep pockets no doubt, but whose intentions aren't likely to be as pure as the burger joint down the road whose owners have had children and grandchildren don jerseys for the school.  When asked who his potential donors were, JT McGraw (the driving force behind the project) mentioned that Frontier Airlines would be at the top of his list.  It's a savvy move considering their the airline's recent announcement, but one has to ask how much Frontier airlines really cares about Provo High athletics.  And, in addition to their name on the stadium, what else might they want to see happen in exchange for their donation?  Half-time announcements?  Frontier's logo on the jerseys?  Where does it stop?

Those, of course, are all extreme examples.  But in thinking through these sorts of partnerships, schools need to consider where they might lead.  The next time the library needs a remodel, do we end up with the Subway Social Sciences shelf or the Domino's Pizza study hall?  And, based on the view of Board Member Darryl Alder--who commented that the district should try to sell naming rights for anything and everything it can--that sort of thing isn't out of the question.  

Even in college athletics, where corruption and profit-driven decisions are almost the norm, institutions have largely avoided corporate naming rights for their venues.  Most have distinct names, completely removed from individuals or corporations (e.g. The Cotton Bowl, The Rose Bowl, Harvard Stadium, and the "Big House" at Michigan).  Even when the stadium does have a namesake, it is almost always an individual or family who, while donating large sums of money, is a key part of the community in those places (e.g. Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, or Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee).  

So, the question Provo needs to ask is where this is all leading and if they'll really end up in a place that they want to be in.  Sometimes giving up a bit of money, in the name of doing what is best for students (like this community college in Texas) is a better road.


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