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Gym naming rights deal oversteps its bounds

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Posted: Thursday, August 9, 2012 10:31 am

OPINION - When The O’B Surf Group offered $150,000 toward an estimated $300,000 renovation of the Narragansett High School gymnasium, our eyebrows raised.

In offering the gift of approximately half the cost of the renovations, the O’B Surf Group made some demands. The donors want the gymnasium named after the late Chad O’Brien, a Narragansett High School multi-sport athlete who died in 2006. The O’B Surf Group will have design approval and will receive written financial statements regarding purchases and labor costs for the renovations. They also require the district give the town basketball program use of the space.

We could not remember a deal – high school, college or professional sports – where such demands were made.

To see if we had missed a trend, we touched base with two international naming rights experts. One called design approval and the financial requirements “unprecedented.” The other said he could not recall such terms on any level of sports – high school, collegiate or professional. He cautioned the sponsor seemed to be “overstepping.” His advice: The school should be careful not to give this sponsor too much control.

We could not agree more.

The gym needs renovation – no argument there. It has not been updated since it opened in 1975, and even then, the layout was poorly planned. The O’B Surf Group’s proposed renovations are good ones, including a new hardwood floor surface for basketball and volleyball, four new basketball hoops, new bleachers, a new scoreboard, upgraded seating and a new public address system. The renovations would go a long way toward making the space more functional for both players and spectators.

But to ask for design approval, and control over the budgets is – as our expert said – unprecedented. If the district opts for a different design, will the donors take its ball, and its cash, and go home? If its members do not agree with a choice of contractors, will they try to circumvent municipal bidding processes? If the town basketball leagues must share the space, who will have first rights?

There is also the issue of the naming rights.

In its proposal, The O’B Surf Group said it wanted to “secure the legacy of Chad O’Brien while simultaneously improving the educational environment for future Narragansett students.”

We understand the emotion behind the request, and with budgets tight for the foreseeable future, an argument can be made for naming rights. As college and professional sports have learned over the last 10 years, the move can be beneficial to the venue’s bottom line, while offering a sponsor an opportunity to honor a legacy, or to raise awareness or brand itself in a community or with a certain fan base.

But, as college and professional sports have learned, naming rights also can be a public relations nightmare. Scandals happen. Just ask the Houston Astros, an organization that thought it struck gold when officials signed a 30-year, $100 million deal with Houston energy and financial trading company Enron, only to have the deal blow up in spectacular fashion as the Enron name became synonymous with greed, fraud, indictments, bankruptcy and disgrace. Or ask Roger Williams University, which took a benefactor’s name off the School of Law after the man – a former chairman of the Board of Directors who donated $2.8 million for the law school’s founding – allegedly made racist statements.

To avoid such problems, the town and district have a policy of not naming buildings after anyone, living or dead, though there have been exceptions. The school’s athletic field is named in honor of Tom Ashley, a teacher and coach, and the town renamed its library after the death of long-time town manager and councilman Maury Loontjens, a beloved figure in the community and a major supporter of the library.  So there is precedence, though often municipal buildings are named only for public servants, like Ashley or Loontjens, or State Trooper Daniel O’Brien, who died rescuing Matunuck residents in the path of a hurricane, for whom the pavilion at East Matunuck State Beach was rededicated, or Cpl. David B. Champagne, a U.S. Marine killed in action in the Korean Conflict, for whom the post office in Wakefield is named.

Finally, who is The O’B Surf Group? The Secretary of State has no record of an entity with that name, nor does Guidestar, which tracks the tax forms of non-profit organizations. The paperwork given to the school district said the group is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit founded to create an endowment in O’Brien’s name. Superintendent Katherine E. Sipala said she had met with O’Brien’s grandfather, South Kingstown Chief of Police Vincent A. Vespia Jr. who is on the Board of Directors of the Chad O’Brien Scholarship Fund, a registered non-profit, whose board of directors also includes O’Brien’s parents, and area coaches and athletes.

If the district is considering taking money from a group, and there are strings attached, there ought to be more transparency. The district has formed a sub-committee to study the proposal, and the School Committee will ultimately decide whether or not to accept the donation. The Town Council will ultimately decide on the naming rights. We think everyone involved ought to be wary, and should not begin to consider it unless the group becomes more transparent and less controlling. And even then, the Town Council should give hard thought to the precedent they would set in agreeing to name the gymnasium after a young man who was just starting out in life, as loved and missed as he may be. 

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