KeyBank Hasn’t Paid the City for Naming Rights to KeyArena for Four Years

The Seattle Center arena adds an odd twist to the decades-long debate over corporate names on pro-sports stadiums.

Michael McCullough’s e-mail handle reflects the date of what he calls the biggest sporting event in Seattle history: June 7, 1978.

That was the day, or night, that the Seattle Supersonics lost Game 7 of the national championship to the Washington Bullets in the Seattle Center Coliseum. McCullough was at the game, champagne tucked underneath his seat to pop for the victory that never came.

McCullough, a grandfather who now lives in Seward Park, stuck with the team over the coming years, through the high of the 1979 championship victory and the low of the team being carted off to Oklahoma City in 2008. He actually plays a bit part in the documentary Sonicsgate, as the guy who confronted Sonics owner Clay Bennett as he slipped out the back door of the federal courthouse during the legal wrangling over the team.

“I gave him a ration of shit,” McCullough tells the camera. “He got into an SUV, and I tell him, ‘You fucking lying hillbilly motherfucking asshole!’ ”

McCullough admits he can get overworked—“I go through waves of getting all upset at things bothering me. That’s all that is”—including his latest peeve, which is tangentially related to the heist of Seattle’s basketball team: KeyArena.

Here’s his gripe: Shortly after the Sonics left Seattle, the contract between KeyBank and Seattle Center for naming rights for the sports arena came up for renewal. The bank had been paying about $900,000 a year for the naming rights while the Sonics were at the arena. In hopes of keeping KeyBank as a sponsor, the city-owned Seattle Center offered a new price to reflect the fact that the arena would no longer host an NBA team: about $400,000 a year. But the bank still walked.

The consequence of KeyBank’s miserly ways? So far, nothing. For four years, the Cleveland-based bank’s logo has kept glowing red atop the arena, and its name is still invoked anytime a concert, Storm game, or roller derby takes place within its confines.

“Why should local small businesses, banks, and credit unions have to tolerate the KeyBank free ride, while they budget for advertising?” McCullough asks, using much the same voice he used to chew out Bennett.

For years, he’s tried to find others to share his outrage, including the City Council. He’s written e-mails, to tepid response. He says he cornered Kshama Sawant at the Seward Park PCC to talk about it, and says she was fairly receptive. But to date, nothing’s been done. The city says there’s a good reason for that: Removing all references to KeyBank from the arena—right down to the staff’s business cards—would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Were the arena to readopt the name Seattle Sports Coliseum, taxpayers would have to eat the cost of whatever moral satisfaction comes from ensuring a giant bank doesn’t get something for nothing.

“If you take it down, what do you use instead?” asks Deborah Daoust, spokeswoman for Seattle Center. “It’s continuity for us, which is important from a branding aspect.”

It’s a brand that’s been making money. In 2013, the arena saw net revenue of $1.2 million, thanks in part to a stretch when it hosted 13 events in 20 days. The next year saw the arena turn a profit again.

Marc Jones, the Center’s director of marketing and business development, says officials have been open to new naming sponsors, but that they just haven’t been able to seal a deal. Complicating matters are ongoing discussions about building a new basketball arena in SoDo, which could impact what kind of events are held at Seattle Center. Meanwhile, the Center has been able to land new advertising deals for the arena—but nothing on the level of a naming sponsor.

“That was kind of our focus,” Jones says of the smaller deals, “because of the unknowns of the arena and the market.”

Whatever rationale the city uses for retaining the KeyBank moniker, it seems to be setting an odd precedent in the decades-long debate over giving corporations the rights to name pro sports stadiums. When company names first began to appear on beloved franchises’ home fields, it was seen as the final blow to the innocence of pro sports, the completion of the league/industrial complex, and true fans refused to adopt the new names. However, in KeyArena—which still hosts a pro team, the Storm—Seattle has quite the opposite: a stadium where everyone refuses to give up the corporate name despite the lack of dollars to justify it.

Reached for comment on whether the bank has any thoughts on its good fortune in getting four free years of advertising on the arena, spokeswoman Anne Foster said in an email: “Like every company, we continuously review our portfolio of sponsorships and strive to improve their impact and return on investment. New sponsorship options – including opportunities at Seattle Center – are considered as they arise. Investment in this dynamic market is a priority for Key, and we continue to be a strong corporate partner and philanthropic leader. Although Key values the positive brand presence that the arena afforded us as a sponsor, we have moved our major sponsorship activity to the Seattle Mariners, the Tacoma Rainiers, and Broadway Across America at the Paramount Theatre.”

With Seattle facing a population boom, soaring rents, and transportation nightmares galore, the naming rights of KeyArena are unlikely to rise to the top of the agenda anytime soon.

But that won’t stop McCullough from giving the city, to borrow his own phrase, “a ration of shit.”

“The city should come out and say, ‘It will be called Seattle Center Coliseum as of Monday morning,’ ” he says. “It’s wrong to give someone a free ride.”

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