SBJ/Oct. 28-Nov. 3, 2013/Franchises

AT&T naming deal years in the making

Getting AT&T’s name on the home of the Dallas Cowboys may have been the longest sales process of any naming-rights deal, taking more than six years.

Years before the Cowboys’ $1.2 billion stadium opened in 2009, team officials were pitching AT&T. “We were knocking on their door long before we had a shovel in the ground, because we were convinced then and throughout the process that AT&T was the perfect partner,” said Cowboys COO Stephen Jones.

Jones announces the deal with Cathy Coughlin, who headed AT&T’s negotiating team, and Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck.
Photo by: AP IMAGES

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There was certainly initial interest. AT&T was moving its corporate headquarters from San Antonio to Dallas, and a naming-rights deal would make a statement. But then AT&T Chairman and CEO Ed Whitacre retired in June 2007. He was replaced by Randall Stephenson, and as a former chief financial offer, Stephenson’s first deal was not going to be a naming-rights agreement.

That change was followed by the economic collapse. Money got tight, layoffs were prevalent and naming-rights deals became a favorite target for politicians seeking scapegoats.

“There was criticism of naming rights, and AT&T was having to deal with certain challenges, and it just wasn’t the time for naming rights,” said Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

So, just as Bank of America’s all-but-the name sponsorship deal with the new Yankee Stadium was scaled back, AT&T’s deal became a founding partner-level deal, which was still sizable. Above the stadium’s massive scoreboard, AT&T got camera-visible signage in a league where that is nearly impossible to get.

“It was a lesser deal, with the idea of sometime revisiting it in the future,” Jerry Jones said.

The new facility opened as Cowboys Stadium in June 2009 with a George Strait concert, although many called it “Jerry World.”

“We were still on the phone with them and told them we thought they might be missing some value. The interest was still there,” said Stephen Jones. He said they engaged again later, as the 2011 Super Bowl approached.

“But there were still not a lot of things going on in naming rights,” he said. “It was not far enough out of the economic crisis to get it done. The economic crisis was the No. 1 reason why things didn’t get done, so we just decided to stand down.”

The Cowboys contend they didn’t pitch the deal to another company. “I felt like we would ultimately be able to get together,” Jerry Jones said.

In May of this year, the naming-rights talks heated up. Mark Wright, who joined AT&T in 2011 as vice president of media services and sponsorships, doesn’t recall that there was a single factor mobilizing those discussions. “I don’t think there was any one thing that all of sudden said, ‘Now we need to do a naming-rights deal.’ … It was just time to take the next step,’’ he said.

Wright was on a team negotiating the deal headed by AT&T Global Marketing Officer Cathy Coughlin. The Cowboys’ team included the Jones family and Greg McElroy, the Cowboys’ senior vice president of sales and marketing.

The political and economic climates had changed. And, as Stephen Jones pointed out, by the time negotiations resumed in earnest, the Cowboys didn’t need to tell AT&T that their stadium was one-of-a-kind. “They told us we didn’t need to sell them on how unique or special the stadium was,” he said. “We had accomplished that.”

He recalled feeling after two weeks of talks that a deal was going to get done, but issues regarding technology upgrades, specific category rights and exposure were important.

“We’d opened as Cowboys Stadium, so when someone drove up, they wanted there to be no mistaking that it was AT&T Stadium,” he said.

By the time an agreement was finalized in late July, those in on the last phone call were spread across three continents: North America, Africa and Europe. AT&T moved forward, as it was happy with its incremental branding. “They did a phenomenal job in getting all our assets in place, from building marquee to cups and napkins,” said Wright, adding that the naming-rights deal will be measured for “awareness, brand preference and consumer willingness to recommend AT&T products.”

The NFL stadium joins AT&T-branded facilities in San Francisco; San Antonio; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; and Lubbock, Texas.

“This deal did have a long history,” said Stephen Jones. “If there’s a lesson, I guess it’s to be tenacious and keep working any deal, because we always thought AT&T was the one.”

Staff writer Daniel Kaplan contributed to this report.

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