Wealthy donors have an ‘edifice complex’ when it comes to naming building after themselves. But what happens when their name loses luster?

In college sports, the no man’s land between professional and amateur athletics, it is no longer just the bowl games and stadiums that are for sale but even the players on the field.

At Penn State, a booster can attach his or her name to a position for a mere $300,000. Demand is so strong at Pacific-10 powerhouse USC that the school now endows its second string. The Song Girls on USC’s pep squad are offering themselves up for sponsorship at $1,900 each.

For more evidence of how far the naming madness has gone, consider the most recent New Year’s Day Outback Steakhouse Bowl featuring Penn State and Tennessee: The John and Willie Leone Endowed Nickel Linebacker forced a fumble. The Greg Wolf Endowed Strong Safety picked it up and ran back for an 88-yard touchdown. The Robert and Judith A. Klein Endowed Placekicker punted the extra point, earning the Nittany Lions a 17-10 lead they never relinquished.

This isn’t new. Naming rights have been around at least since 1638, when John Harvard bequeathed 400 books and 779 British pounds to New College in Cambridge, Mass., creating perhaps the most prestigious educational brand in the United States. But in recent years, the “edifice complex” has dominated sports and expanded to include whole towns, a monkey species, the school principal’s office, human body parts and even babies.

The proliferation of paid-for names may be its own worst enemy. Their ubiquity forces them to wash over one another in a forgettable graffiti. A name on a building means little more than how much someone paid for it (or promised to).

And because of a host of scandals, donors are learning that when it is purchased, immortality may be less enduring than they think.

Pro sports paved the way in the world of naming. The total investment in naming rights as of this past March is $5.9 billion, according to Dennis Howard, a professor at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Starting in 2009, the New York Mets will play in the new Citi Field, ditching the old Shea Stadium name in exchange for $400 million over 20 years from Citibank. The Yankees’ new stadium will be named, oddly enough, Yankee Stadium, but only because the city reduced the annual rent from $10 million to $10 to keep corporate sponsors out.

High naming turnover has perverse consequences. Fans simply ignore the parade and stick with the names they know. Boston still has its Garden (if not the “r”), and San Francisco natives who refused to call Candlestick Park anything but Candlestick finally won the name back.

The two teams in the 2006 NBA Finals play in the American Airlines Center and the American Airlines Arena, respectively. Naming-rights consultants estimated that would be worth $9 million in advertising per game, but years of research have yet to produce a link between naming rights and increased sales.

And the publicity isn’t always good. Energy Solutions, for instance, bought the rights to the arena in Salt Lake City where the Utah Jazz play. The company had, in earlier incarnations, bribed officials so it could dump radioactive waste on public land. Fans returned the favor by calling the Salt Lake City arena the “Radium Stadium,” the “Tox Box,” the “Glow Bowl,” “Chernobowl,” “Jazzardous Materials” and the “Fallout Shelter.”

The more alarming front in mercenary nomenclature is the public sphere. Chicago city officials last year invited naming and co-branding deals for six downtown public buildings; 130 police and fire stations; six senior-citizen centers; a few thousand garbage trucks, snowplows and other public vehicles, and chances to advertise in water-bill and municipal-code-violation mailings. New Jersey had a similar sale, leading the state treasurer to announce, in earnest, that the statehouse would not be on the block.

Las Vegas sells the rights to monorail stations ($2 million to $4 million each), a strategy being considered by Boston and New York. Sun City, Ariz., sold the right to name streets ($250,000 for four). The town of Halfway (population 337), near the Snake River in Oregon, renamed itself Half.com in exchange for $100,000 and 20 computers for its schools.

The price for naming a public school ranges from $30,000 (an elementary school in Columbia, S.C.) to $25 million (a high school in Walled Lake, Mich.); the rough standard is 50 percent of construction costs, according to published reports.

Many schools simply print out glossy price lists that include gyms ($100,000), fields (in football-crazed Texas and Florida, they can cost more than $1 million), principal’s offices ($10,000 to $750,000), lunchrooms and assembly halls ($100,000), faculty lounges ($50,000), classrooms ($25,000) and proms (under consideration in Plymouth Canton, Mich.). Chamberlain High School in Tampa has an Outback Steakhouse wing in which the restaurant chain built a restaurant to help educate students in the art of the bloomin’ onion.

And it gets even more bizarre. Residents of Clark, Texas, took the name DISH in exchange for 10 years of free satellite television. The gambling Web site GoldenPalace.com paid $650,000 to name a Bolivian titi monkey after itself at an auction to benefit Amazonian forests. Iuma.com, a now-defunct music Web site, offered $5,000 each to at least five families that named a child Iuma. A man in Lancaster, Pa., tattooed a Web-hosting service’s name on the back of his neck for an undisclosed amount.

Naming can, however, backfire when the donor runs into trouble. The University of Missouri, after the Enron collapse, wasn’t able to fill the Ken Lay Chair in Economics and is now trying to figure out what to do with the money.

The prestigious Kellogg School of Management is located in Northwestern University’s Arthur Andersen Hall. The DuPont Pavilion at Villanova was re-dubbed the “Pavilion” after its namesake, John DuPont, murdered an Olympic wrestler. The tech-stock whiz Alberto Vilar, up on fraud charges after his patronage outstripped his purse, had his name pulled down at New York University, the Royal Opera in London and the Grand Tier at the Met. In 2004, the Paige Sports Arena at the University of Missouri was renamed after it was revealed that its namesake, a Wal-Mart heiress, Elizabeth Paige Laurie, had been paying her roommate to do her homework.

Recipients of these gifts have also gotten wise to the potential pitfalls of the practice. In negotiating cash-for-nomenclature deals, lawyers and long contracts are now standard, as is due diligence on donors. Naomi Levine handled naming negotiations at New York University for 26 years. She said that the school now rejects deals outright if the namesake misses a high ethical bar – i.e., is “indicted or convicted.”

Metal letters, rather than stone inscriptions, are the norm now. They’re cheaper and easier to replace in an era in which nothing lasts forever. “How long is perpetuity?” Levine asks. “Seventy-five years.”

Matthew Quirk is a staff editor at the Atlantic Monthly.

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