The Slippery Slope of Selling Naming Rights: A Historian’s Perspective

Apr. 3, 2017
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theater
The former Milwaukee Theatre

A few weeks ago, it was announced that downtown’s Milwaukee Theatre would now be known as the Miller High Life Theatre. The new name is the result of a five-year naming rights deal between MillerCoors and the Wisconsin Center District, owners of the theatre, which was signed in 2016. The district will receive $350,000 per year for the naming rights and will leave MillerCoors with an option to extend the deal for an additional five years at the end of the current contract.  

Spokespeople for the district and MillerCoors expressed the usual bland platitudes that result from this type of branding partnership. The reality of the situation is, of course, financial. The new name provides an additional revenue stream for the facility that outpaces any identity damage that comes from the loss of the old name. In this case, the replaced name wasn’t even that old – the venue had only been known as the Milwaukee Theatre since it was remodeled in 2003, having previously been known as the Milwaukee Auditorium since it opened in 1909.

But it is a troubling trend, from a historian’s perspective, to see yet another public facility now bearing a corporate-branded title. Another recent example is the former Marcus Amphitheater, now known as the American Family Insurance Amphitheater. This case is a bit trickier since it has seemingly shifted from one corporate sponsor to another. But the amphitheater, like the Bradley Center or the Pabst Theatre or the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, was funded primarily through contributions from its eponymous corporation. While they all remain a form of advertising or branding, these facilities and their names represent some sense of civic charity on the part of the corporation, which is in itself an event with historical value. Frederick Pabst built his namesake theatre because he believed in Milwaukee. MillerCoors put their name on a theatre because they believe it will earn them more money.

Like the loss of a historic building, the loss of a historical building name endangers others. If there was any chance that the Warner/Grand theatre could reopen without a corporate title, it is all but gone now. Obviously, the new Milwaukee Bucks arena will feature a corporate name, one that will undoubtedly be rolled out with a great deal of pomp. Venues like the Riverside and Pabst have a high degree of name recognition, but could be vulnerable to the kind of “title sponsorship” that gave Milwaukee the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Other cities have allowed corporate branding of public transportation – something that could come into play with the many proposed expansions to the new city streetcar. Other public institutions like parks, schools, and libraries have also opened up to “sponsorship,” a trend that will not go unnoticed as the Milwaukee Public Museum seeks a new home.

The major historical concern in all this is a loss of a sense of permanence. A facility with a name that rotates from one meaningless brand title to another every five or ten years will come to be seen as similarly disposable. An existing facility that adapts corporate sponsorship runs the risk of devaluing its own identity and its place within the larger scope of local history. Few mourn when a billboard is torn down to make way for a new one. With an eye towards the future’s past, Milwaukee should be careful what it allows to be treated like a billboard. 

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