The two scoreboards in the Sauk Prairie High School varsity gym tell the basic story of the sporting events held there: score of the game or match, how much time is left in a period or quarter, timeouts left — even the number of fouls. Across the top of the scoreboards, you get more of the story, as a local bank’s name is visibly illuminated. Many years ago, local businesses such as the Bank of Prairie du Sac purchased one of the two scoreboards in the high school gym. The bank’s name on the scoreboard reflects its contribution to the purchase.
Little funding nuances are nothing new to local schools. But the idea for naming rights is a fairly new development for school districts, developed over the past several years. The concept began decades ago in the arenas and stadiums of professional sports teams and has trickled down through universities and colleges in almost every state. With funding sources for local school districts tightening or drying up, districts have begun looking at new ways to pay for costly maintenance work and large-scale projects both inside and outside school walls.
In 2015, the Baraboo School District sold naming rights to its football/soccer field inside of Beryl Newman Stadium, Activities Director Jim Langkamp said. The field will be called Flambeau Field through at least 2030, named for a plastics company located in Baraboo. The district received an upfront payment of $100,000 in 2015 and has placed signage on the outside of the stadium, on the scoreboard and on the press box identifying “Flambeau Field.”
“The money we received for the naming rights, in addition to advertising revenue sold on our stadium bleacher wrap, was used to help pay for stadium upgrades such as new bleachers and a press box,” Langkamp said.
Langkamp said selling the field’s naming rights was an alternative source of revenue for the project, rather than add money to the district’s annual budget or tap into its fund balance.
Honoring the past
In Mauston, the middle school is named after former administrator Gordon Olson, and the Mauston High School auditorium is named after former principal William Bomber.
Reedsburg School District Activities Director Bryan Yager said the only district venue with designated naming rights is to Millennium Field, after it received a $1 million donation from 1946 alumna Nancy Christie Goessel in 2000. (According to the Beloit Daily News, Goessel passed away in 2016.) The $1 million Goessel donated to the district paid for the excavating of the entire Millennium Athletic Complex to include two soccer fields, practice fields and a competition football field with home bleachers.
There have been several additions to the facility over the 17 years it has been in existence that were not financed by the Goessel’s original donation, but the Millennium Field name — selected by Goessel — remains.
“Without her donation the field wouldn’t exist,” Yager said. “We gave her the option of naming it after her family and she chose the name Millennium Field.”
The School District of Wisconsin Dells is currently working through a pre-referendum process and was presented with two very large private donations. The district recently accepted an offer of 80 acres of land from Kalahari Resort owners Todd and Shari Nelson, with a stipulation that asks the district to consider building a new high school.
The school board also voted last month to accept $500,000 from Sally Olson Bracken and Sandy Bracken in memory of Sally’s father, former Lieutenant Governor and entrepreneur Jack B. Olson, a graduate of Wisconsin Dells High School. Slack said Olson Bracken has asked the district to name the basketball court in a new high school in memory of her father.
“Because the district does not have a formal policy with respect to these types of donations, it is time to take on discussion in developing a formalized policy,” Slack said. “As you can see, these are significant donations and having a defined policy with regard to naming rights will assist with current and future donations.”
Mauston Superintendent Christine Weymouth said the district created a naming rights policy as a way to be proactive in light of the current practice.
“The basis for creating the policy is that we did not have one on the books at the time we developed it as a general response to outside facility improvements we were involved in,” Weymouth said. “No person or business has contacted the district about a specific project or room or facility out of an interest in funding it.”
Cliff Thompson, Sauk Prairie superintendent, said his district began looking into the concept of naming rights several years ago. The topic is currently at the committee level.
“Our district did not have a policy or practice of sponsorship or naming rights,” Thompson said. “We decided in looking forward to future projects related to our green space facilities, it would be advantageous for us to look at sponsorship. We’ve always been aware of other districts doing it and being successful in creating third-source income.”
Choosing the right source
The Bank of Prairie du Sac, which has been in the Sauk Prairie area since 1916, has a deep-rooted history in giving to all aspects of the community and has a strong stance on relationship-building, which makes it an attractive partner for the Sauk Prairie School District when it comes to sponsorship arrangements.
“We have to be aware of where the money is coming from and whether or not the district wants to align itself with the source,” said Josh Boyer, Sauk Prairie activities director. “We have to look at what makes sense in terms of identifying an appropriate means for aligning ourselves with a company whose values align with the district’s.”
Discussions in many districts, including Sauk Prairie, revolve around identifying contract terms, length of sponsorship time, boundaries and other parameters that fit best with the comfort level of the individual district.
With Milwaukee Public Schools, no area of the district’s properties are off-limits for naming rights. More than 10 years ago, it began selling naming rights to everything from rooms and hallways to auditorium or gym seats. The administration believed it would be easier to have a marketing agreement than to raise money through taxes.
According to a 2006 radio podcast from National Public Radio, the New Berlin School District was willing to consider most any business for general sponsorship arrangements, so long as it didn’t promote tobacco or alcohol.
“There has always been corporate sponsorship,” said Tom O’Guinn, a marketing professor at UW-Madison. “You see them on Little League uniforms and business names on the boards at hockey rinks. It’s only gotten people’s attention lately, but it is controversial. On the one hand, if you need the money, what’s wrong with a little advertising? But on the other hand, it begs the question, is nothing sacred? Do we have to sell everything?”
In years past, the Sheboygan School District raised more than $1 million from banks and healthcare companies. A school district in Indiana sold naming rights to several of its athletic facilities — the football field went to a bank, the baseball field to an auto dealership, the softball field to a law firm, the tennis courts to a charitable couple and a concession stand to a tire and auto care company and restaurant.
O’Guinn said while the districts no doubt benefit from the income, it doesn’t come for free.
“School districts have to be careful,” O’Guinn said. “They have to do their research. They have to consider whether the advertisers or benefactors in any way can influence policy. And that’s just the tip of the concerns people have.”
On the surface, there is nothing inherently wrong with advertising or selling naming rights, O’Guinn said.
“The question becomes, do you relinquish important control or influence?” O’Guinn said. “Is a soft drink company that funds a football stadium going to be mad if the district doesn’t allow soft drinks on campus? Is their quid pro quo? If so, there is a problem.”
And what if, after a contract is signed, something negative befalls a corporate sponsor?
That’s a conversation Sauk Prairie is currently having.
Preparing for problems
In Baraboo, school board policy on naming rights states once a school or major facility has been named, it should not be renamed “except for compelling reasons.”
Mauston’s policy on naming rights states the board of education will decide on the grounds and conditions to determine whether the naming rights should be rescinded.
“Any commercial considerations that are not in compliance with other district policies such as alcohol or tobacco prohibition would of course not be considered,” Mauston’s Weymouth said. “We would retain the right to enter into a relationship or withdraw from a relationship with a vendor if the vendor’s mission were in conflict with the district or in contrary to our policies.”
“You really have to have a clear agreement written up, outlining what the sponsor can do in exchange for what — or what they cannot do,” UW-Madison’s O’Guinn said. “They might get their name placed in a prominent place where people can see it. But what they might not get is the ability to influence policy with regard to something like nutrition, or whatever the company might want to influence.”
“We’re still working through a lot of that in Sauk Prairie,” Boyer said. “Some of the conversation has been around not wanting to turn the district into billboard city.”
So far, Boyer said the district hasn’t limited what things it would consider selling naming rights to.
“The stadium, the River Arts Center … and there could be future facilities we develop and construct,” Boyer said.
In Wisconsin Dells, much of the conversation has focused on achieving balance.
“The primary piece of discussion is how to find a good balance between respecting the requests of those donating and not becoming too commercialized,” Slack said. “This is certainly not the case with the two donations we have received, and the Nelsons have not even hinted at being recognized other than making the residents of the School District of Wisconsin Dells aware they would like to give back to their home community through the construction of a new school.”
While not wholly against the idea, SDWD is being cautious in its differentiation of naming rights versus advertising rights.
“With regard to the advertising piece, there appears to be some level of concern about the types of advertising the district should accept,” Slack said. “More discussion on that will take place at a later time.”
If not diligent, those lines could easily be blurred. With school budgets persistently being squeezed, large capital projects — whether it be for a new school, athletic or arts facility, or anything else — almost always have to go before the district’s voters. So do requests to exceed state-imposed revenue caps for the schools’ annual operational budget.
And in most cases, when more than 50 percent of a community’s population has no direct ties to a school district — meaning they have no child or grandchild in school — it can be hard for school district to sell the concept of a referendum.
“There is a perception out there that there’s a lot of money to cover every project,” Boyer said. “That’s just not true. A lot of districts haven’t done it because they haven’t needed to yet and the idea didn’t have to be explored as often before.”
While some districts such as Wisconsin Dells have donors stepping forward without being asked, others, such as Reedsburg, haven’t been as fortunate.
“We really haven’t had the opportunity to do so,” Yager said. “Some schools have sold naming rights to hallways in new schools and practice fields. Baraboo is famous for that. Someday hopefully we will be blessed with having to make a decision with regard to naming rights. But we will cross that bridge when we come to it.”