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Volume 22 No. 26
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Industry insiders expect Kraft Heinz to throw in the towel on Steelers’ naming rights

“Pass the ketchup, please,” is the operative phrase concerning naming rights at the stadium the Pittsburgh Steelers have called home since 2001. Heinz, founded in nearby Sharpsburg, Pa., has held title rights there since the building opened. Its current deal expires in 2021, and while we’re told Heinz is still at the table, the distance between buyer and (re)seller is vast, and no one across the naming-rights industry expects the Heinz name to be on the stadium after that date.

A principal reason is that Heinz is no longer locally headquartered. Kraft acquired Heinz in 2015, meaning decisions like this one will be rendered at that company’s offices in Chicago. We note with interest that Miguel Patricio started as the new CEO of Kraft Heinz this month. Read as much as you wish into the fact that he was once the CMO at Anheuser-Busch InBev, long the sugar daddy of American sport marketing. Meanwhile, Kraft Heinz’s U.S. CMO, Eduardo Luz, departed in May, replaced on an interim basis by Adam Butler, president of beverages, snacks and desserts. Is that someone willing to write a big naming-rights check?

Further complicating a potential renewal by Heinz are flagging sales at the parent and the recent downgrade by S&P Global of Kraft Heinz’s rating to one level above junk status. Companies never want to do title sponsorship deals when the optics would be bad.

Heinz Field has been the name of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ home stadium since it opened in 2001, during which the team has won two Super Bowls.
Photo: getty images

Kraft Heinz is paying an average of $2.85 million for the deal — well below NFL standards. We’re told Kraft could be interested in a new deal in the mid-seven figures per annum. However, look at some recent comps: The Philadelphia Eagles recently renewed Lincoln Financial’s naming rights for an average of $12 million per year. SoFi will reportedly pay $20 million per annum for its pending 20-year hookup with the stadium that will house the Los Angeles Chargers and Rams. Accordingly, we’re told that the Steelers would be happy with a deal of $10 million or more. 

So while the incumbent hasn’t officially walked, a renewal is highly unlikely. Sources tell us the food giant wouldn’t be averse to walking away early, should the Steelers land a new naming-rights sponsor. Various sales agencies have been pitching the team, but it is unclear if it has chosen one, or if it will use one at all to sell naming rights. When Kraft Heinz officially exits, we expect it to remain as a Steelers sponsor, along the lines of the “Official Ketchup” to keep the locals happy.

BROWNOUT: With NFL training camps opening, the biggest news in NFL licensing circles is the ascendance of the Cleveland Browns into a team that can actually move licensed merchandise. With the help of recently added wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and the maturation of second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, Vegas lists the normally desultory Browns as the 10th most likely Super Bowl winner at 20-1. Having never even seen their team play in a Super Bowl, Cleveland fans are more optimistic than ever. They are spending so much on Browns licensed goods that several of the league’s larger licensees say they have already either sold or booked commitments to sell more of the team’s merchandise than they sold all of last season.

Numbers from the various Fanatics sites, including NFL.com, support their contention. Since March 1, Beckham’s No. 13 is the league’s top-selling jersey, and Mayfield’s No. 6 is third overall. In overall team sales, Cleveland has made up considerable ground to where it is fourth overall, trailing only reigning Super Bowl champion New England along with Dallas and Chicago.

Legends is the Browns’ longtime merchandising rights holder, and while the team’s base started at far less than perennial licensing powerhouses like the Cowboys or the Packers, it’s tough not to admire a sales jump of better than 200% from the same period last year. Sales through the Browns’ own retail channels from March 1 to June 30 jumped an impressive 509% from the same period last year.

“If this continues, the Browns may even have to think about getting a logo,” said one longtime NFL licensee with a laugh. Cleveland is the only NFL team without a logo on its helmets. 

COMINGS & GOINGS: Agency veteran Rob McQueen has joined Verizon as director of sponsorships. The telco/tech giant includes top-shelf properties like the NFL and more than 25 combined MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL teams, along with more than two dozen collegiate deals. An intriguing side note here is that McQueen will be overseeing work from Verizon agencies CSM, Jack Morton and Momentum, all former employers of McQueen. … A pair of NFL departures: Josh Feinstein has switched from licensor to licensee, joining kids apparel brand Outerstuff as EVP, new business and strategic partnerships. He was at the league since 2007, most recently as VP, consumer products. Also, Alexandra Sardo has joined Cogent Entertainment Marketing to lead their brand activation team. She’d been with the NFL since 2013, most recently as manager of sponsorship and partnership management. … Former NFL marketer Peter LaPointe has plugged in to Volta as VP/brand partnerships and sponsorships. Silicon Valley-based Volta runs a nationwide network of electric vehicle free charging stations, which support themselves by selling advertising on its chargers. … Matt Shearer joins MLS club FC Cincinnati as senior director of corporate partnerships. He’d been director of business development at Richard Childress Racing since 2014. … Bryce Townsend has joined the Drone Racing League as chief partnerships officer. He was last with GroupM’s ESP Properties as head of solutions and sales.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.