Alaska deal dry run for stadium rights

"For the same price, you just get more." Back in the 1990's, that was Alaska Airlines' slogan, the idea they used while trying to compete as a full-service airline during some heavy price wars. In late January, Alaska Airlines named their own price, agreeing to a sponsorship deal with the University of Washington for the naming rights to their basketball court inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

The deal, a five-year commitment for roughly $3.5 million, gives Alaska Airlines even more credibility with their biggest hub. And for the University of Washington, it signals a sea change in how their athletic department deals with corporations, naming rights, fundraising and integrating all of that toward their greatest challenge to date - the renovation of Husky Stadium.

"It was a real leap of faith," Senior Associate Athletic Director O.D. Vincent told this week. For the first time in school history, they negotiated their own corporate sponsorship deal instead of letting a third party negotiate for them.

And it wasn't a drawn out negotiation, either. According to Jennifer Cohen, Senior Associate Athletic Director for Advancement, it took no longer than three months for both parties to come together and hammer out a partnership. Ultimately, Alaska Airlines offered $400,000, per year in cash; $25,000, per year in trade (travel benefits); 20 MVP Gold memberships valued at $5,000-10,000, each; and $175,000, per year to activate additional sponsorship opportunities in conjunction with IMG Collegiate.

And more importantly to the school, the link with Alaska Airlines gives them added credibility in the regional corporate marketplace at a time when they are ramping up efforts in attracting what Vincent calls 'foundational partnerships'. It was a partnership Washington wanted, even to the point of leaving some money on the table when compared to other corporate offers.

Vincent believes the tradeoff is more than worth it in the long run. "Other people in this marketplace are going to look at Alaska, and that word of mouth is going to spread," he said. "It's just like any referral.

"What corporations are looking for now is a real integrated experience. So for our fans that are using the building and having the experience, we want to find partnerships that really add value to that experience. So it's really a win-win on both sides."

For example, Alaska Airlines has direct connections with 11 of the 12 cities that host Pac-12 programs. What better experience could a patron have than going to a Washington basketball game at Alaska Airlines Arena, seeing the Huskies win, and then going home and booking a flight on Alaska Airlines for the upcoming hoops road trip?

And to foster that relationship, Washington already went the extra step of enlarging the size of the signage on the court at Hec Ed so it shows up more on television, a move they did without prompting from their new sponsor. Frankly speaking, UW wasn't happy with how it looked. It looked small. The next time you see the Alaska Airlines logo on the floor, it will be bigger.

"We'll get it right," Vincent said. "We want it right for them, and we want it right for us. That was an example of a great partnership."

It's partnerships like the one just cultivated with Alaska Airlines that have Cohen and Vincent burning the candle on both ends. They are quick to agree that this negotiation was simply a dry run for the behemoth task that sits on the horizon. For the first time ever, a renovated Husky Stadium will be a blank corporate canvas, and it's up to them to make sure any future partnerships make sense in the same way Alaska Airlines did.

"For the first time, we don't have to take someone's logo or whatever, and shoehorn-it in to something that was built 50 years ago, or allocate a certain section of seats," Vincent said. "It's really the first time that we've had to get into the corporate marketplace and have corporate partnerships that make sense."

The biggest thing that made sense to Cohen and Vincent was the idea of staying local. When you think of Alaska Airlines, you think of Seattle. It fits. So instead of relationships with the likes of Bank of America, look for Washington to find relationships with businesses that fall in line with the mission and value system of the school.

"That's our commitment, to go out and sell partnerships that are very true to who we are," Cohen said. "And we understand the culture - not only of the University of Washington, but of Seattle. And that's very important to us. That's something we want to honor."

"We're going to target as close to home as we possibly can," added Vincent, noting that Seattle is the 13th biggest media market in the country, and UW captures nearly all the college interest. "We're fortunate to be a part of one of the great local economies and one of the great entrepreneurial areas in America."

So does that mean Starbucks Stadium is right around the corner? Not so fast. "While we're here in our positions, we're not selling the name of Husky Stadium," Cohen said, matter-of-factly.

But the field is up for grabs. It's that last $175,000 paid through their sponsorship arrangement that could prove interesting for Alaska Airlines when the school begins their search for Husky Stadium naming rights. Starting in 2013, every piece of signage will be up for sale, and the airlines could further integrate their Husky sports experience by buying a few signs on the new Jumbotron, for instance.

Nothing has been set in stone, obviously, as UW is still gathering all the information they'll need to determine what kind of inventory they'll have to sell, including the 25 suites, 25 loge boxes and 2,555 club seats expected to be available through the redesign.

"We had a handful of other businesses that were very interested (in the basketball deal), and now really great prospects for us and the stadium," Cohen said. "Now is the time to cultivate these businesses and see where it takes us. It's been a great experience."

The naming rights for the field will certainly be the most interesting subject to follow. And in true philanthropic style, it could even be named after a person. So while Husky Stadium will always be Husky Stadium, it could technically end up being Howard Schultz Field at Husky Stadium. And it would only cost Schultz $50 million, frankly a small price to pay for giving away one of Seattle's storied sports franchises. It certainly would go a long way toward allowing Schultz to be seen in public.

After all, what's fair is fair.
Part 2 will focus more on Husky Stadium and what the school is doing to incorporate the thoughts of Husky fans, students and season ticket holders into what will eventually become the new Husky Stadium experience, starting in 2013. Top Stories