A rendering shows the Seattle Mariners’ ballpark once new signs and lighting have been installed. (Courtesy Seattle Mariners)

Milwaukee, San Francisco, Seattle all find partners for new long-term deals

The recent trend for Major League Baseball teams nearing the end of stadium naming-rights deals has been to find new partners for long-term agreements.

Over the past few months, the Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners announced new deals to rebrand their venues for American Family Insurance, Oracle and T-Mobile, respectively.

The agreements for Oracle Park in San Francisco and T-Mobile Park in Seattle took effect before the 2019 season. In Milwaukee, American Family’s deal kicks in after the 2020 season. The agreement extends to the Brewers’ spring training facility in Maryvale, Ariz., which is now called American Family Fields of Phoenix after going through $60 million in upgrades.

Brewer MillerCoors, AT&T and Safeco Insurance all declined to renew naming rights for those ballparks, but they will remain sponsors at a lower level, said officials from the three teams. 

American Family Insurance, Oracle and T-Mobile were existing sponsors at the ballparks where they now hold naming rights. As a result, the teams didn’t have to look too far to find new partners, and for the Brewers and Giants at least, the negotiations went quicker than the process to brand a new facility. 

In Milwaukee, Miller keeps its name on the ballpark through the 2020 season. The timing of the deal’s announcement was pushed up to coincide with the news released in January that American Family Insurance, based in Madison, Wis., would open a new office in downtown Milwaukee. It’s part of a bigger investment overall in Greater Milwaukee for American Family, which has been a Brewers sponsor since 2001, said Jason Hartlund, the team’s chief revenue officer. 

“We were able to accelerate the discussions and keep a focus,” said Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers’ president of business operations. “Instead of weeks going by between meetings, we had days and hours go by. Negotiations were exhaustive and compacted. It took two motivated parties to reach the finish line.”

Those negotiations, which began last summer after Miller declined to renew its deal, took on a high level of sophistication with American Family Insurance, he said. The company is full of data scientists accustomed to crunching numbers on a daily basis with customers, and the Brewers had to step up on the data analytics side to prepare for the sales presentations, Schlesinger said.

The Brewers consulted with Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, with input from Endeavor. On the buy side, American Family used IdeaQuest. The agency previously helped its client launch the American Family Insurance Championship, a PGA Tour Champions event in Madison.

“We hadn’t been in that business talking naming rights since I’ve been here,” said Schlesinger, who joined the Brewers in January 2003. “For a deal of this type, we needed the heavy lifting from Van Wagner. The level of detail was formidable. (American Family officials) were intelligent in how they were looking at things, and we had to respond to that. One thing I learned is there are a lot of naming-rights deals, but there’s a lot of individualism, and so much is local in terms of the assets you provide.” 

No financial terms were announced for the three naming-rights deals, but consultants brokering these types of agreements speculated on the value based on their experience and industry connections. 

The American Family deal most likely runs $4 million a year under the terms of the 15-year agreement, consultants said. MillerCoors pays about $2 million annually for its deal. Schlesinger said the deal is commensurate with others in the Milwaukee market, which is among MLB’s smallest. 

“It’s a lot more than what Miller was paying,” said Rob Yowell, president of Gemini Sports Group, a sponsorship sales agency. “American Family is responding to the recent State Farm deals” for naming rights to the NBA Atlanta Hawks’ arena and NFL Arizona Cardinals’ stadium. “Sounds like they came in aggressive.” 

The Miller deal was done in 1996, four years before the stadium opened. It came during an era when naming rights was still maturing as an industry and the internet was just establishing a foothold in computer technology.

The San Francisco Giants’ stadium is now Oracle Park, as shown in a rendering. The deal is for 20 years.

“Things have changed over the years and we have changed as an organization,” Schlesinger said. “When that deal was negotiated, there was no such thing as social media. There’s a whole universe of exposure and recognition you can give partners that reach consumers instantaneously in ways that were not even a figment of the imagination back then.”

In Seattle, Safeco informed the Mariners in mid-2017 that it would not extend the deal it signed in 1998, one year before the ballpark opened. The Mariners actually began “laying out a road map” four years ago for a new deal when they first learned Safeco might not renew its agreement, said Joe Chard, vice president of corporate business and community relations.

There was interest from multiple parties about acquiring naming rights, Chard said. T-Mobile signed a 25-year deal valued at about $75 million, sources said. The term length matches the Mariners’ lease extension with the Washington State Major League Baseball Stadium Public Facilities District, the team’s landlord. Nielsen did research for the team on valuation, Chard said.

“These deals often come structured in different segments,” said Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale. “Part of it is the naming-rights agreement. We also have a sponsorship agreement, just like we did with Safeco. It includes other elements such as radio and TV. It’s a separate value attached to the same partner.” 

T-Mobile is an MLB sponsor, as well as a team partner, and its headquarters are about 10 miles from the ballpark. It took 18 months to get a deal signed from the time talks first began with T-Mobile, Chard said.

“For a lot of reasons, it makes a lot of sense,” he said. “From a naming standpoint, it’s a big shift, going from an insurance company to a technology firm. It’s much different. As an example, when I showed the renderings to my 24-year-old son, his reaction was ‘That’s really cool, Dad.’”

As part of capturing the attention of millennials, and the future generation of Mariners fans, T-Mobile’s activation will include a new “fast-track” entrance in left field exclusively reserved for its cell phone customers. Inside the park, the T-Mobile Pen will feature charging stations among other things to help further connect fans with the naming-rights holder.

“We have a way of identifying who their customers are through their devices,” said Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale. “We can do some geofencing and point them toward (the gate) as they get closer to the ballpark. It’s a perk for them.”

The Giants also had a lot of interest in naming rights for their ballpark, one of baseball’s crown jewels, situated along the San Francisco waterfront. The team had been in talks with AT&T over the past nine months about renewing their deal, which had one year remaining. The telecom giant decided not to extend it and allowed the Giants to search elsewhere for a new partner to rebrand the stadium in 2019.

 Oracle’s 20-year deal carries a total value in the range of $300 million, according to Jason Pearl, the Giants’ senior vice president of partnerships and business development. The company has been a Giants sponsor for 15 years. 

The Giants used Navigate to help on valuation but handled the sales and presentations in-house, Pearl said.

“We really only had a few weeks to get something done for this season,” he said. “We approached a very small group of our existing partners, ones we had relationships with at the top of the chain. Oracle recognized the opportunity and was able to move quickly within our time frame. They fit every aspect of what we were looking for — local, technology based. The fact that we’ve known them for as long as we have and worked so well together was perfect.” 

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that the headquarters of American Family Insurance was moving. The company is instead opening a new office in downtown Milwaukee.