Are you entrusting your money to banking houses or sportin’ houses? The United States is in its worst credit crisis since the Great Depression, as shotgun marriages are arranged and financed by the government. Investment and commercial banks are regularly taking multibillion-dollar write-downs because of their gambling addictions. But the once-staid institutions continue another addiction: paying big money to get naming rights on pro sports facilities — a dubious marketing ploy for financial companies, which should be advertising their safety, not their sporting nature. Actually, in paying big bucks to put their names on sports facilities, financial institutions have been subliminally admitting that they are gamblers, not fiduciaries.
The New York Mets (baseball) are drawing up a 20-year, $20 million-per-year deal with Citigroup, a hodgepodge of financial institutions that is addicted to the same thing as the Mets are: errors. Elizabeth Ody of Kiplinger.com calls Citigroup “The Bad Boy of Finance.” The company is involved in every kind of money manipulation “and appears to have made big mistakes in most of them,” she says. On September 10, U.S. Senate investigators charged that Citigroup and other Wall Street firms have been helping offshore hedge funds avoid U.S. taxes.
The New York Yankees have fleeced taxpayers to get a new stadium. Now Bank of America is finalizing a deal, said to be for $20 million a year, by which the bank could post its logo and signs all over the park. B of A bought the worst mortgage dog of all, Countrywide. The deal was originally considered a bargain, but now it looks questionable. Not having had enough, B of A then agreed to buy Wall Street’s Merrill Lynch, which did the original financing on San Diego’s downtown ballpark. B of A already has its name on the stadium in which the Carolina Panthers (football) play. It could become one of a few companies whose names are on more than one facility.
Of the 70 pro stadiums, ballparks, and arenas in the United States and Canada, 20 sport the names of financial institutions. That sum was 21 until last year. Subprime lender Ameriquest had the rights to the Texas Rangers’ (baseball) field until 2034. In early 2006, Ameriquest settled a class-action suit with the attorneys general of 49 of the 50 states over allegations of predatory lending and bait-and-switch tactics. Soon it closed all its branch offices and stopped taking loans. Then it quietly withdrew from the Rangers deal.
In San Diego, the naming rights of the football field belong to Qualcomm, a very good telecom company. The baseball stadium bears the name of Petco, supposedly a pet-supply retailer. But you might even call it a doggy financial concern. In 2000, two buyout firms bought Petco, then a publicly held company, and took it private. Then they brought it public again, and the insiders reaped fortunes in an economically meaningless move. Later, a competitor offered top money for the company but didn’t want to retain Petco’s brass. So in 2006, Petco was taken private a second time by the same firms, at a price well below what the competitor had offered. The buyout specialists have loaded the company with debt. Petco shareholders have been neutered — Wall Street’s specialty.
Charlotte-based Wachovia Corporation is the fourth-largest U.S. banking chain. The Wachovia Center is home of the Philadelphia 76ers (basketball) and the Flyers (hockey). But Wachovia is flying low now; its loan portfolio is loaded with stinkers. Its stock has taken a beating.
KeyBank has its name on KeyArena in Seattle. The Seattle SuperSonics (basketball) are deserting for Oklahoma City. A women’s pro team will still play in the arena. The bank is ailing as the result of the mortgage meltdown; as losses mount, it has sliced its dividend in half. But its stock has dropped by much more than half.
The Conseco Fieldhouse is home to the Indiana Pacers and Fever (men’s and women’s basketball). Stephen Hilbert, a former encyclopedia salesman, built Conseco by buying small insurance companies, adding a casino along the way. Hilbert had a grand lifestyle, paying himself $119.4 million in 1997. He couldn’t resist buying Green Tree Financial, whose head, Lawrence Coss, paid himself $106 million in 1996. The marriage of the profligate fellows was a disaster. Conseco went into bankruptcy in 2001, emerging after shedding $6.6 billion in debt but not shedding its naming rights.
The Cincinnati Reds (baseball) play in Great American Ball Park. Great American Insurance is a unit of American Financial Group, a highly diversified money machine put together by Carl Lindner, formerly a close associate of junk-bond king Michael Milken, who went to the slammer for his predations. For years, American Financial employed lawyer Charles Keating as executive vice president. Yes, that Keating: the one known for the Keating Five scandal. Keating got dubious favors from five U.S. senators. One was John McCain.
The Detroit Tigers (baseball) play in Comerica Park, named for a bank that spent 158 years in Detroit, then last year moved its headquarters to Dallas. Downtown Detroit does that to people. In early September, Standard & Poor’s cut its outlook on Comerica stock to negative, and now analysts are saying it may have to cut its dividend.
The Arizona Diamondbacks (baseball) play at Chase Field, formerly Bank One Ballpark. Bank One was purchased by JPMorgan Chase in 2004, and the ballpark was rechristened. Early this year, our country’s financial policy makers proclaimed that the Dow Jones Industrial Average would plunge 2000 points if Wall Street’s Bear Stearns went bankrupt. So the Federal Reserve threw in $29 billion, and Bear was sold for a cheap price to JPMorgan Chase. Now JP has Bear’s old woes: trillions of dollars in shaky derivatives.
Some financial institutions are doing better than the teams they represent. PNC Financial Services is doing well, thank you. The same cannot be said for the Pittsburgh Pirates (baseball) who play in PNC Park. Similarly, M&T Bank Corporation is doing fine. The bank’s name is on the stadium in which the historically so-so Baltimore Ravens (football) play.