It’s too soon to know yet whether Flamy will show up next spring when Hempfield High School in Landisville, Pa., opens its softball season.
Flamy — a smiling electric, well, flame on blue legs — was there in April when the Black Knights took the field en route to a 13-9 playoff season. That’s because it’s his field they play on.
Flamy is the corporate mascot of Schwanger Bros. & Co. Inc. (“serving Central Pennsylvania for more than 70 years”), a heating and air-conditioning company in nearby Lancaster that owns the rights to the name of Hempstead’s softball diamond — Schwanger Bros. Field. There’s a big yellow Schwanger Bros. banner on the fence. Schwanger Bros. banners hang from each foul pole and along the bottom of the scoreboard. On Opening Day, a Schwanger Bros. logo even graced home plate.
The Hempfield School District made the deal to help pay for the campus facility, which opened in 2008. It’s just one of many such arrangements that have been struck at Hempfield and at dozens of other schools across the country — including a handful of elementary schools — as education budgets fall further behind in the stagnant economy.
“I think the funding is the biggest issue,” said Jason Jesberger, president of marketing for Market Street Sports Group of Lancaster, which has put together naming-rights deals at Hempfield and 10 other school districts in Pennsylvania that he said were “looking for alternate streams of revenue.”
“We know we can’t put it on the tax base or cut teachers,” he said in an interview.
That’s why field hockey and lacrosse players at Hempfield practice and compete on Heart of Lancaster Hospital Turf Quad. At Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, the baseball team plays at SmileMaker Dental Field. At Wilson High School in West Lawn, Pa., the basketball teams compete at Discovery Federal Credit Union Gym.
And the corporate naming isn’t limited to athletic facilities. According to brochures it distributes to businesses in Central Pennsylvania, Market Street can negotiate “sponsorship opportunities” for almost anything with a physical presence on campus — libraries, administration buildings, cafeterias, conference rooms, guidance offices, nurse’s offices, art rooms, photo labs, band rooms and chorus spaces.
In fact, journalists cover Hempfield Black Knights football games from the Wilco Electric Press Box in the football stadium.
‘Everybody could see the handwriting on the wall’
Like nearly every school district in the country, Hempfield can use the money. The $100 million budget for 2010-11 projects a shortfall of $997,000, necessitating expenditures from the district’s reserve fund and an increase in the property tax rate of 3.4 percent.
That’s a function both of the economy in general and its effect on state funding for local schools, said Brenda J. Becker, superintendent of the Hempfield schools.
“Everybody could see the handwriting on the wall, with expenses going up for schools and funding becoming more and more difficult,” she told msnbc.com.
Becker arrived in Landisville at the beginning of the 2008-09 school year, shortly after the school board approved the deal. Initially, “When I saw they voted on this, I thought, ‘Oh, dear God, what is this going to be?’” she said. But after having helped guide implementation of the plan through “all sorts of growing pains,” she’s now convinced that it has “worked out far better than what I could have thought at that time.”
“We have really developed partnerships with the companies or entities that have become sponsors of us,” she said. “We have found that these partners are doing a lot of great things for our kids — a lot more than simply the financial,” including creating scholarships and student awards and helping with general fundraising.
Lunch in the Wheatland Federal Credit Union cafeteria
In exchange for a commission — generally 30 percent — Market Street Sports Group puts schools together with local businesses in exclusive deals. It refuses to put any branding in actual classrooms, and it won’t handle sponsorships involving tobacco, firearms, alcohol or lotteries, effectively ruling out the big revenue generators at the pro sports level.
Even so, Jesberger said, “a lot of districts are on our waiting list.”
Nationwide, no one knows how many schools have sold the naming rights to facilities — it’s a relatively new business and there’s no national clearinghouse to keep watch over it. The deals are such a recent development that a 2004 report on commercial activities in public schools by the federal General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) made barely any mention of them.
Nor is there anything like a standard rate for such deals, Jesberger said, because “it depends on the size of the district and the eyeballs that come through,” as well as the “comfort level” of the local school board.
Hempfield, for example, brings in about $300,000 a year from its sponsors, which also fund such facilities as the Sylvan Learning guidance office, the Orthopedic Associates of Lancaster athletic trainers room, the Wheatland Federal Credit Union cafeteria, the Kline’s Services video scoreboard and the Brunner-Burkhart Group baseball field.
‘Pushing products and ... self-indulgence’?
Nationally, individual naming rights deals can run to $1 million or more:
While the issue has yet to hit the radar of most education and children’s watchdogs, it does alarm Commercial Alert, a nonprofit activist group in Washington.
“One after another, schools across America are dedicating themselves not to role models, but instead to corporations,” the organization said in a written statement. “Instead of promoting character and honor, they are pushing products and the self-indulgence of the commercial culture.”
But Becker, the Hempfield superintendent, said district officials carefully weighed such considerations before agreeing to the deal.
“You’re always going to have some of that concern about overcommercializing the schools,” she said. "This was a brand new thing for the community. How do we feel about this? But the complaints I have gotten have been very, very few and far, far less than what I thought they would be.”
Jesberger, of Market Street Sports, acknowledged that whenever he makes a presentation to school board members, “a couple will fight you tooth and nail.”
But he said Market Street structures its deals so that there’s less commercial clutter on campuses by having “one sponsor that puts one giant sign up.” That “cuts down on a lot of ugly signs that are junking up high school stadiums.”
Still, school officials usually take some persuading, he said, because “they’re not sports marketing people. They’re educators, and rightly so.”
Signs alone aren’t enough
What do you get when your company buys a stadium? Visibility and exclusivity, said Ron Burkhart of the Brunner-Burkhart Group, the real estate agency that sponsors Brunner-Burkhart Group Field, where the Hempfield Black Knights play their baseball games. It’s a way to burnish the brand and reach thousands of parents around the region.
“Every time they pull into the parking lot, they see a 40-foot banner,” said Burkhart, whose daughter is a varsity cheerleader. “They do now put two and two together: ‘You guys are the guys who sponsor the baseball field.’”
Brunner-Burkhart just renewed its $600-a-month deal with the school district, which Burkhart called “an easy decision for us.”
To make the deal work financially, Brunner-Burkhart is “involved year-round,” he said. Employees work concession stands at events, and the company takes part in halftime shows at football and basketball games.
“To be honest, it’s not something that you’re going to do that you’re going to see immediate results for,” Burkhart said, but “we have started to see some recognition.” Just recently, he helped the principal sell his home and buy a new one.
It’s a process that Jesberger calls “grassrooting.”
“Just putting your name on the stadium — it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “You have to be out there collecting data and using it to further your own marketing.”
But whether or not sponsors take on the role of corporate PTAs, Becker, the Hempfield superintendent, said parents should expect more brand-building in the future.
“I just think we’re going to see more of it,” she said. “It is going to be a growing phenomenon across the country, because districts are struggling.”
Alex Johnson is a projects reporter for msnbc.com. Become a fan on Facebook.