Even on a football field it sometimes helps to tread lightly. That’s why as Berkeley administrators were deciding how to pay down the $445 million price tag associated with the retrofit and expansion project at California Memorial Stadium, the idea of selling naming rights to the structure itself was never on the table.
“We have made that very, very clear from the beginning of this process,” says Catherine Koshland, Vice Provost for Teaching, Learning, Academic Planning and Facilities. Memorial Stadium, christened in 1923 as a tribute to fallen soldiers of World War I, is considered a monument to all of California’s war dead. According to Koshland, “That was inviolate.”
But the actual playing field? Not so much. As of early December 2013, the name on the turf has been sold to a San Francisco company called Kabam, which designs online video games about Tolkien mythology and intergalactic warfare. Three of the company’s four co-founders are Berkeley alums. The cartoonish (and, given the fact that the stadium straddles an active fault line, unfortunately onomatopoetic) moniker will soon be emblazoned at the 25-yard lines as well as other spots in and around the stadium.
Reaction to the deal was mixed, but the critics were the more passionate camp. Blogging at KQED, Bay Area journalist (and Daily Cal alum) Dan Brekke was practically apoplectic—“Kabam Field? Kabam Field? Really?” Veteran sportswriter Ray Ratto fulminated, “neither I nor any right-thinking human will ever call the football ground inside Memorial Stadium Kabam Field. I cast no aspersions on the video game company, but the name is stupid, and the idea barely better.” And even over at the gaming forum Kotaku, where you might expect blanket acceptance, writer Owen Good summed up his feelings thusly: “Barf.”
Retch all you want, but for administrators like Koshland, the awkwardly constructed, “Kabam Field at California Memorial Stadium,” as the name now appears in official Bears promotional material, is the height of reasonable compromise—one that will bring almost $18 million to Cal over the next 15 years.
Berkeley certainly wasn’t forging any new territory here. Today, more than a dozen American college stadiums go by one corporate name or another. (If Kabam makes you cringe, consider the poor fans at the University of Louisville, who now cheer on their beloved Cardinals in KFC Yum! Center.)
Nor are corporate names anything new on the Berkeley campus. Plenty of things unrelated to sports are named for corporations, from lecture halls (Hewlett Packard Auditorium in Soda Hall) to deanships (the Bank of America Dean at Berkeley-Haas School of Business).
In the end, says Koshland, it all comes down to simple economics: “Remember that the state was un–willing to provide resources and the regents were unwilling to provide resources. We were under orders from the regents to retrofit or abandon the facility, so we had to look at all possibilities. A lot of very interesting and very thoughtful discussion went into this.”
Ostensibly, such discussions are instructed by agreed-upon principles. In 2002, when the Board of Regents issued new, more brand-friendly guidelines on the naming of UC infrastructure, Berkeley chose to adhere its own, more restrictive standards, which read: “To avoid even the appearance of commercial influence or conflict of interest, the names of corporations or their foundations shall not be attached to buildings or other major features of the campus such as open spaces and roadways.”
Asked whether Kabam Field isn’t technically an “open space,” Koshland admits the deal marked an exception, in part because the naming rights were not given in perpetuity, but are set to expire in 2029. “That makes it an entirely different animal,” said the Vice Provost. “[Space Assignments and Capital Improvements] and the Subcommittee on Naming thought that it was a sufficiently different arrangement that affected the field and that we would treat it differently.”
But while the rules were bent for this deal, the University’s next step may be to rewrite them entirely. After all, with the UCs so desperate for cash and with so many potential naming opportunities, some administrators are tired of looking this particular horse in the mouth.
In an email to California, John Wilton, Vice Chancellor of Administration and Finance, made no bones about the University’s intention to make the most of what is, after all, a valuable campus resource. “We will be searching for additional naming rights and the search is definitely not restricted to Kabam. Our search includes all possibilities, individuals/families, trusts, and, where there is a good fit, corporations.”
According to Catherine Koshland, debate within the administration may wrap up as soon as this spring. It’s a “lively conversation,” she says, but her own position is clear. “There are only so many levers that we can pull by ourselves. Given the financial realities that we continue to face—within a broader value system that we will not compromise on—one has to be pragmatic about these things.”