September 7, 2001

Selling Out

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Mixing politics and sports is usually like mixing gin and tonic: it’s pretty nasty going down and most likely there’s going to be some vomiting the next morning. But to his credit, Wellington Webb, the mayor of Denver, earlier this year demonstrated himself as an exception to the rule — he used his political sway to try (albeit unsuccessfully) to stave off the seeping influence of corporate corruption into his city’s beloved Denver Broncos.

In a local story that grabbed national headlines and struck at the root of the debate on commercialism in sports, the Broncos — after spending the better part of 40 years in historic Mile High Stadium, the house that John Elway built — have moved this season across the street to a new home. However, thanks to a hefty sum of money from the Denver investment firm Invesco, the Broncos are leaving behind the famed Mile High moniker that is inevitably linked with their history.

The new stadium will be called — in what’s being deemed a slap in the face to long-time Broncos’ fans — Invesco Field at Mile High. Granted Inveso dipped into its pockets and dug out $120 million in naming rights fees in order to coax Denver’s management to sell out its soul and the “Mile High” tag. (The stadium itself cost less than $400 million to build.)

Webb, not to mention the dutiful citizens of Denver, had just a bit of a problem with the “Mile High” name being traded away for cash. In a survey, 64% of Denver residents voted to hold onto the old name even if it required a slight tax hike. Even the local newspaper, The Denver Post, refused to refer to the new stadium as Invesco Field, choosing instead to stick with Mile High Stadium.

“When you say ‘Mile High Stadium’, you think of a city a mile high,” Webb told “You think of the mountains. You think of skiing. You think of the Broncos.”

When you say Invesco, however, you probably think of a bunch of suits sitting lamely in their ivory tower offices, watching helplessly as their clients’ money tanks in the stock market.

Up in arms over the decision to “commercialize” Mile High, Webb has been in opposition from the very beginning of the ordeal.

“My position is that everything in life is too unsettled,” he said, when several companies were originally in the bidding for naming rights. “Utility companies want to deregulate. With phone companies, you don’t know who’s handling your calls — AT&T, MCI, Sprint, whoever. Banks change names so fast, the names on your checks don’t correspond to who owns the bank. So for me, why would you sell an identifiable icon, even for millions of dollars? We’re a Western city, a new city that doesn’t have many icons. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

While most politicians would have jumped at the chance to embrace Corporate America, Webb stood true to his roots — his city, his team.

“In New York, I can’t imagine they’d change the name Yankee Stadium,” he said. “So why should we change our name here? And I think most people agree with me.”

The fall of “Mile High” — Webb’s plucky fight aside — proves that nearly no professional team or stadium is invulnerable against the lure of corporate cash. (Even Green Bay’s Lambeau Field is currently searching for a sponsor.) If so, who’s to say that the effect won’t trickle down to the next rung: collegiate athletics.

Already, several big-name college stadiums boast corporate monikers. But most, including our very own Cornell, do not. Either because it can’t attract any desperate sponsors or it has no interest in doing so, Cornell remains untainted by corporate namesakes. But, for a university which seems hell-bent on exacting as much money from its students and alumni as possible, it should theoretically only be a matter of time until Cornell’s purity folds. In fact, Schoellkopf Field and Lynah Rink are already defaced with banners from Pepsi and Subway — which is puzzling because, combined, those deals probably don’t pay for one pair of hockey goalie Matt Underhill’s pads.

The logical (and most profitable) next step would be to rename Lynah Rink. After all, who wouldn’t want to attend games at Tompkins Trust Company Rink — free checking for the first 500 fans! (That does beget the question, though, would Harvard’s Bright Hockey Center — Lynah East to most of us — also have to be redubbed Tompkins Trust Company East?)

With our multi-billion dollar endowment and inherent elitist attitudes, one would hope that day will never come.

Playing devil’s advocate, one could easily argue that Cornell has already peddled its soul to alumni boosters who have sponsored everything from benches to Duffield Hall, the new Engineering building. More convincingly, the Athletic Department readily changed the name of the Newman Field House when the Bartels family swooped in and flashed some money. But even in the fight to match the endowments of Harvard Princeton, at least Cornell has not resorted to massively surrendering to the temptation of corporate sponsorship.

But if it does so in the near future, who would be our Wellington Webb? Would President Rawlings or Athletic Director Noel have the nerve to dismiss any notion of corporate sponsorship on our campus? Or are we inevitably doomed to see our good Cornell name sullied and eventually swallowed by the publicity-hungry corporate world?

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