Sacramento will begin MLS play in its new stadium, shown in a rendering, in 2023. (HNTB)

Elevate exec selling naming rights for four stadiums, three of them new

Naming rights expert Jeff Knapple is going through one of the busiest stretches of his 30-plus years in sports marketing, due in large part to the explosion in Major League Soccer stadium developments.

Seven new MLS stadiums are set to open over the next five years, and Knapple, chief partnership officer for Elevate Sports Ventures, is selling naming rights for three of them: Inter Miami CF, Sacramento Republic and St. Louis City SC.

In addition, Elevate is selling naming rights for the San Jose Earthquakes’ 5-year-old venue.

The 18,000-seat building opened as Avaya Stadium in March 2015 before the technology firm filed for bankruptcy two years later and its name was removed from the building. It’s currently called Earthquakes Stadium.

Knapple believes most of those four naming rights deals could be completed by midway through 2021.

“We’ve had really good traction across the board, to be honest,” he said.

Craig Martin, vice president of partnerships for Elevate Sports Ventures, is working with Knapple on the deals.

In South Florida, Sacramento and St. Louis, depending on which categories have not been sold, Elevate’s inventory extends to naming rights for practice facilities, plus kit sponsors, jersey sleeves and stadium founding partners.

All told, there are more than 30 marketing “positions” to sell as Elevate works in tandem with sales groups for the respective clubs. Depending on the team, some inventory could be packaged together under one brand depending on the agreement, Knapple said.

In Miami, Sacramento and St. Louis, the value for stadium naming rights could run $5 million to $6 million a year, depending on market conditions, he said. The kit sponsor deals carry roughly the same value, Knapple said.

For MLS venues, the benchmark for naming rights is LAFC’s stadium, which opened in April 2018 next to Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum after the old LA Sports Arena was torn down.

In 2016, Banc of California signed a 15-year, $100 million naming rights deal with LAFC before announcing in May it was terminating the agreement on Dec. 31, 2020. LAFC is searching for a new naming rights partner for one of the league’s finest facilities, a $350 million project.

As the pandemic has grown over the past nine months, Elevate Sports Ventures has taken its time preparing to pitch naming rights for Sacramento and St. Louis, both of which begin MLS play in 2023. Both teams pushed back their launch from 2022 due to COVID-19.

Agency officials have spent the past eight months putting the infrastructure in place for multiple marketing platforms to “present the right value proposition in a world of COVID,” according to Knapple.

“We’re just trying to be a little more sensitive and not so tone deaf,” he said.

“Existing teams were dealing in a ‘make good’ world,” Knapple said. “We had the good fortune of not having to deal with too much of that. It was a timing issue of when we were ready to go ‘prospect’ and how our clients feel about outreach to brands to form a long-term relationship.”

In Sacramento, the process extends to proposing deals for the team’s current sponsors in the United Soccer League, where the team has played since 2014, said Ben Gumpert, president and chief operating officer.

Inter Miami CF began play this year at Lockhart Stadium, an existing 18,000-seat stadium in Fort Lauderdale that underwent a retrofit tied to a 30-acre redevelopment with a new practice facility.

Long term, the team plans to build a new stadium at Freedom Park in Miami, near the city’s airport.

The old MLS Miami Fusion played four seasons at Lockhart Stadium (1998-2001). As it stands now, Inter Miami could play the next three to four seasons in Fort Lauderdale until their new facility opens, Knapple said.

“We’re selling for both stadiums,” he said. “The team put (more than $100) million into upgrading Lockhart Stadium with the new training center on site. Plus, there’s Freedom Park, which still requires some political votes (for project approval) and they’re working on that. COVID set everybody back, so there’s been a delay there.”

In the Bay Area, the pandemic essentially killed a potential naming rights agreement with the Earthquakes in which negotiations had reached the boardroom level, Knapple said. The team brand dates to 1974 in the old NASL.

“It does not seem to have survived, so we have retooled and are back out in the marketplace,” he said. “The value is less than the expansion teams because it’s the second name on a building.”

Knapple’s experience dates to selling naming rights for Target Center in 1989 and he has brokered deals for Staples Center, MetLife Stadium and Philips Arena (now State Farm Arena), among others.

As with most sports marketing executives, Knapple, based in Los Angeles, is doing the bulk of his business through video conference calls on Zoom and other online channels. He hasn’t traveled since mid-March.

In the beginning, it was problematic and took time to adjust to that form of communication, he said. The silver lining is the ability to make multiple pitches online in a much shorter period of time, compared with the logistical issues of doing it in-person.

“I can do three Zoom pitches the same day,” Knapple said. “At one point in September, that’s what we were doing. There was a backlog in people wanting to be able to deal with this, at least from my experience.”

Elsewhere, as of this week, the three new MLS stadiums opening in 2021 are still without naming rights. FC Cincinnati and Austin FC both open their buildings this spring, pending confirmation of the 2021 schedule. The Columbus Crew’s new stadium is targeted to open in July.

Austin FC is working with Excel Sports Management to help sell naming rights and is “favorably tracking” toward signing a deal prior to the 2021 season, said team President Andy Loughnane.

FC Cincinnati is going through the process in-house after filing suit over the summer against agency Premier Partnerships over an apparent agreement with a naming rights partner that ultimately fell apart, costing the team millions of dollars in fees, according to published reports.  

Vince Cicero, FC Cincinnati’s senior vice president of partnerships and broadcasting, is leading the effort internally, said team president Jeff Berding. The two worked together for a decade at the Cincinnati Bengals.

“We’ve had some very good conversations, mostly with local companies,” Berding said. “COVID has made things harder.”

There’s good news in Nashville. The ownership of Nashville SC has turned down one formal offer for naming rights to their 30,000-seat stadium under construction. It will stand as the country’s biggest soccer-specific facility when it opens in 2022. Ian Ayre, Nashville SC’s CEO who previously spent 10 years running Liverpool in the English Premier League, declined to say how much the MLS team is asking for with regard to naming rights.

“The offer wasn’t one that met with what we were looking for, but it was encouraging to see some early interest at that level,” Ayre said. “Our deal with Excel allows to bring local companies (to the table) that we’re already engaged with, and they’re more focused on a national and international basis.”

Excel, in addition to Austin FC, is consulting with Nashville SC to help secure an agreement.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated since it was first posted.