Facility Naming Rights Trickle Down to the Amateur Level.

Few people remember it now, but when the NFL's Buffalo Bills began playing in Rich Stadium in 1973, many fans were appalled to learn that Buffalo-based Rich Products, a food company, had purchased the right to name the stadium. Even fewer people remember that the price-$1.5 million over 25 years, or $60,000 a year-was then viewed as a significant sum, heralding a new era in professional sports sponsorships.

Naming rights have trickled quite far down since then, with corporations reaching fans in college and high school sports facilities, and dollar amounts reaching the low nine figures-that's hundreds of millions, for those not used to counting that many digits.

Now, regional sports complexes-where the amateurs play in state games, club tournaments, and youth and adult leagues-have caught the naming-rights wave. For example, this month a $14 million, 22-field soccer complex (pictured) will celebrate its grand opening at South Germantown Recreational Park in the northern reaches of Maryland's Montgomery County. Comanaged by the county and the nonprofit Maryland Soccer Foundation, the facility's name is the Maryland SoccerPlex-for now. A sponsor is being sought to name the entire SoccerPlex and its individual fields, where it is predicted 500,000 people will visit annually.

An indoor sports facility on the site already bears the name of Bethesda, Md.-based media giant Discovery Communications, which provided $1 million toward the project. Pepsico has signed on, to the tune of $1.3 million over 10 years, for pouring rights to the entire complex. Individual donations, including $2 million over five years from local soccer organizations, still have left the project short of its construction cost by about $7 million, according to Trisha Heffelfinger, executive director of the Maryland Soccer Foundation.

"We're looking for local, regional and national sponsors," says Heffelfinger. "It's a perfect market for a lot of different companies-athletic apparel, telecommunications, automotive, toys-because Montgomery County is a very affluent consumer market."

The foundation is offering category exclusivity to any corporation that sponsors five fields or more, something it has made easier by carving the landscape up into segmented clusters of fields.

"The SoccerPlex was designed with the potential for sponsors in mind," Heffelfinger says, "but also soccer parents. We tried to avoid the things that drive people crazy about other soccer complexes, such as a lack of nearby parking or bathrooms."

Although the potential still exists that the complex may one day resemble a patchwork quilt of advertising banners and signs, with each field the domain of a particular sponsor, Heffelfinger says that potential users of the SoccerPlex have been supportive of the decision to seek corporate money, so long as non-kid-friendly advertisers (such as alcohol and tobacco makers) are avoided.

"Most people buy into the fact that to get projects like this built, you need to have the corporate community involved in it," she says. "Soccer families like to have corporations associating with and supporting the soccer community. They think that's a good thing."

And that shows just how far corporate sponsorship has come in a generation. Even 10 years ago, the notion that youth soccer players would run and kick in the shadow of billboards would have given many community members second thoughts. Does their silence mean there are no longer any sponsorship boundaries?

"At one point, people were talking about the potential for naming federal buildings or historic monuments," Heffelfinger says. "I think that would be over the line. It's got to be the Washington Monument, OK? It can't be the Microsoft Monument."