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What Steelers fans’ enduring love for Heinz says about the value of stadium naming rights

Steelers fans’ outrage over the renaming of Heinz Field is a case study in the marketing value of naming rights—and the power of nostalgia.

What Steelers fans’ enduring love for Heinz says about the value of stadium naming rights
[Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images]

Branded is a weekly column devoted to the intersection of marketing, business, design, and culture.

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“FOREVER HEINZ!” Ben Roethlisberger, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, tweeted last week. He wasn’t getting emotional about ketchup, per se. But he was apparently speaking for a lot of Steelers fans who are upset that the team’s home field will no longer be named after the venerable condiment brand. The facility known as Heinz Field for a little more than two decades is being rechristened.  

This outpouring on behalf of the Heinz name is a notable development in the history of branding and sport. For a generation or more, fans have lamented the rise of “naming rights” that have saddled nearly every professional sports venue in the country with a paid corporate identity. But here we have the opposite phenomenon—a fan base that would prefer to keep their stadium’s commercial moniker, and all its branded trappings. (The removal of two huge, “iconic” Heinz ketchup bottle props framing the scoreboard seems to have particularly smarted.) There’s even a Change.org petition.

[Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images]
In fairness, part of the consternation centers on the new (branded) name: Acrisure Stadium. While it may sound like the name of a prescription treatment for an unpleasant skin condition, Acrisure is a fintech firm that “provides a broad array of AI-driven solutions” related to insurance and real estate. It’s also based in Grand Rapids, Michigan; Heinz has been a Pittsburgh institution for more than 150 years ago. In short, Acrisure is “a name completely unconnected to the city’s roots,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board wrote, calling the development “another blow to Pittsburgh’s identity.”  

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This certainly doesn’t sound like a very productive branding move for Acrisure. But the naming-rights phenomenon has become so widespread, it seems almost inconceivable that a sports arena wouldn’t have some corporate branding attached to it. (Never mind that so many sound downright cringeworthy, including the L.A. Lakers’ Crypto.com Arena; Smoothie King Center, home to the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans; and Footprint Center, home court for the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball teams.) Despite regular criticism, many naming-rights buyers see the move as a prestige marker of sorts: a sign of having really arrived as a brand. And presumably, having your company’s name mentioned in sports broadcasts (and marketing columns), even in passing, can’t hurt.

But the actual value of naming rights has always been debatable. Just recently, finance site Axiom Alpha published a deep dive into naming rights and their ROI, inspired by “a record-setting year for stadium-name deals.” Specifically, it considered “how companies that bought stadium-naming rights in the past have performed relative to their competitors and the overall market.” Out of 10 case studies, nine—including Ford, Fedex, MetLife, and Lincoln Financial—underperformed. You can quibble with Axiom Alpha‘s methodology and (somewhat lighthearted) analysis, and I certainly wouldn’t conclude that a naming-rights deal is a definitive sell signal to shareholders. But the analysis does give one pause about how much these deals—which can run into hundreds of millions of dollars—are really worth it.

Pittsburgh, however, offers a fascinating and seemingly unexpected case-study response to the concept. Heinz Field was an example of the early wave of corporate-named stadiums, replacing in 2001 the landmark Three Rivers Stadium, long home to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Steelers. Staunch naming-rights critic Paul Lukas, proprietor of the sports-design-focused Uni Watch (and, full disclosure, a longtime friend) includes “I Miss Three Rivers” items in his collection of Naming Wrongs T-shirts. For fans who still pine for their bygone, classically named home fields, from Mile High Stadium and Comiskey Park to Shea Stadium, the merchandise is a not-so-subtle statement of protest “that [their] stadium’s identity is not for sale.”

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[Photo: Althom/iStock/Getty Images Plus]
And that gets at what makes the widespread nostalgia for Heinz Field so remarkable: because this time, it’s a given that the stadium’s identity is for sale, but fans are worked up over who’s buying. According to The Wall Street Journal, Heinz paid $57 million for its 20-year naming-rights run and made a bid on extending that deal, but “Acrisure offered significantly more than Heinz could justify.” (Acrisure’s deal is for 15 years; financial terms were not disclosed.)

The H. J. Heinz Company stopped making ketchup locally decades ago and merged with Kraft a few years back. In fact, Kraft Heinz, as it’s called, isn’t even an exclusive Pittsburgh company now (sharing corporate headquarters with Chicago). But the brand’s history in the city is deep: Founder Henry James Heinz started selling his Tomato Ketchup there in 1869—and its imprint remains strong. Recently, WSJ noted, “a 35-foot-long inflatable pickle with the Heinz name floated above a downtown bridge for the city’s annual Picklesburgh food festival. At night, a Heinz bottle on the side of the history center ‘pours’ neon-red ketchup. Inside, the gift shop sells ketchup-flavored lip balm and T-shirts that say ‘I put ketchup on my ketchup.'”

It’s possible that Pittsburgh has a unique affinity for connecting its sports teams with authentically local branding: After all, the Steelers’ logo is adapted from the “Steelmark” graphic of the American Iron and Steel Institute, a trade association. (And while the steel business is still a presence in the area, there are no longer working steel mills in Pittsburgh, though it hasn’t lost its Steel City nickname.) Perhaps, then, the Steelers’ branding and stadium-naming history trace a connection of global economy icons: from heavy industry to consumer foods to opaque artificial intelligence technology with a confusing name. And maybe that’s part of what’s bumming out the Steeler Nation.

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This episode perfectly demonstrates that a naming-rights deal that’s perceived as having a genuine connection to a city’s culture—and brands are, for better or worse, cultural material—can be not only tolerated but embraced. Which might explain the #heinzforever chatter on Twitter, and why at least one merchandising company is selling T-shirts that say “It’s Still Heinz Field To Me.” The value of Acrisure’s naming rights deal is still up for grabs, but it’s been a major score for Heinz.

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About the author

Rob Walker writes Branded, a weekly column about marketing and branding. He also writes about design, business, and other subjects

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