Could the Feds Cash In on Citi's Mets Stadium Deal?

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Given that construction of the Mets' new stadium began under a cloud of controversy about its name, it's probably fitting that that's all anyone can talk about as its first Opening Day approaches. So far, we've had Congressmen and newspaper columnists demanding that the Treasury Department force Citigroup to rescind its naming-rights deal for the Mets' new home, fans wishing the Mets had named it "Shea Stadium" instead, and Wally Matthews (who'd previously called for the Mets' new digs to be renamed "Field of Schemes" - ahem) demanding that the team "take that toxic contract with Citi and endorse it right over to Manny [Ramirez], 20 years at $20 million per."


Which all makes for great tabloid fodder, but the odds of any of it happening are only slightly greater than prodigal walk machine Oliver Perez pitching a perfect game.

Mets VP David Howard has rightfully pointed out that the team has a "legally binding agreement" with Citi to slap a corporate name of its choosing on the stadium's facade, and nothing short of bankruptcy can tear that beautiful relationship asunder - no matter how icky it may seem for a government-funded bank to be handing over scarce cash to a private sports franchise.

There is, however, another option if, as our own Ward Harkavy suggests, the government wants to recoup some of the cash it's laying out to help build the new Flushing Toilet Bowl. (Harkavy cited my quoted figure of $371.5 million, but counting federal bond subsidies it's more in the $600 million range.) The Treasury may not have leverage over the Mets, but it does over Citi, and it's completely within the government's power to tell the bank: If you want your bailout cash, hand over the naming rights to your Uncle Sam. Then the feds could turn around and sell the stadium name to another, less embarrassing corporate entity - and even, if it feels it's important, include a rider that the new name needs to be in the form of, say, "Google Stadium at Jackie Robinson Field."

Could it work? "It really depends on how the contract is structured," says E.J. Narcise, a principal of Team Services, LLC, which handles naming rights sales. After a spate of corporate takeovers left some buildings' names changing almost yearly - Philadelphia's arena, he notes, is about to get its sixth name in 13 years - teams typically stipulate a limited number of name changes in the course of the contract. Still, Narcise wouldn't rule out the resale of the name by Citi (or the Obama Administration) to benefit taxpayer coffers - especially if the Mets gave their blessing so long as they could keep their $400 mil.

(Narcise also notes, though, that it's extremely unlikely that the Mets are actually collecting their naming-rights lucre in cash. "Citi is not writing a $20 million a year check to the Mets," he says. "What they've done is they've financed the construction, and they've taken points off their interest rate. So they're just moving decimal points around.")

As for what a resale could garner for Joe Taxpayer, it's hard to say: The market, says Narcise, is "tough" right now, with the dismal economy. And demanding that J-Rob get his due as part of a hybrid name could easily slice off half the value of any deal, he says: "If people are not going to call it XYZ Field and are just going to call it Jackie Rob Field or The Jack, the value drops off."

And then we'd still be left with the basic problem: Forcing Citi to give up its naming rights would be good for the federal budget, but would defeat the ostensible purpose of the bank bailout, which is to get the bank back on its feet. "If you're trying to make them a viable business, they have to advertise," says Narcise - though at this point you have to wonder if the Citi Field name is testing the rule that there's no such thing as bad advertising.

Ultimately, it might make more sense to forget all the naming-rights kerfuffle, as entertaining as it is, and focus on seizing not Citi's money, but Citi itself - but nobody's suggesting anything that revolutionary, right?



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