Lexington Herald-Leader – May 1, 2017 – By Jennifer Smith –
First Commonwealth Stadium underwent a facelift and now it’s getting a brand new name.
With an emphasis on “brand.”
The home of the University of Kentucky football team will now be known as Kroger Field, per a deal struck between the university, the UK Athletics department and marketing partner JMI Sports.
“An unprecedented partnership that pairs two iconic brands: UK and Kroger, whose reach extends throughout the commonwealth and far, far beyond our borders,” university President Eli Capilouto said of the agreement, which is for 12 years and $1.85 million annually.
The stadium name change is still contingent on approval by the university’s Board of Trustees at its meeting Tuesday. It is the first name change since the venue opened in 1973.
On the west end of the stadium facing Nicholasville Road, there soon will be new signage replacing the “Welcome to Commonwealth Stadium” with “Welcome to Kroger Field.”
But that is just the start of the changes, which will include new interior, exterior and directional signage. All UK materials referencing the stadium will immediately refer to the new name: Kroger Field.
Kentucky also has agreed to place the Kroger logo on the field opposite the Southeastern Conference logo on the 25-yard lines, one official confirmed.
“This partnership is a lot more than the name of our football stadium,” Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said of the deal with Kroger. “It’s about our shared commitment to this university and to this state.”
It is a multi-tiered agreement negotiated between JMI Sports and Kroger in consultation with the university and its athletics department. Some extras include:
▪ Kroger becoming the official fuel partner of the university as a whole as well as becoming the official grocery partner of Move-In at UK while “providing additional engagement opportunities with students that are still being ironed out,” school officials said.
▪ Per the new agreement, Kroger is the now the official nutrition and pharmacy partner of UK Athletics as well.
“It was about all the other things we could get engaged in since we do food and nutrition and fuel, and we wanted to have all different aspects of what Kroger offers to be a part of it,” said Calvin Kaufman, president of the retailer’s Louisville Division.
Other community components are involved in the deal as well, Kaufman explained, including the chain creating grants as part of the Kroger Fields Community Program that will help revitalize youth football fields around the state.
“I’m thankful they thought bigger than just the stadium,” Barnhart asid.
There also will be a community road race, called the Simple Truth 5K, that will finish at the 50-yard line of Kroger Field.
Standing deals with vendors and concession companies such as Aramark will remain in place, a UK official said. Some of them may work with Kroger as well, but those details are still being ironed out.
“The more we spoke, the more we realized the possibilities and synergies of these two institutions,” said Paul Archey, UK sports and campus marketing president for JMI Sports, which approached Kroger about the partnership initially.
“Rather than talking about signage and impressions, our conversation became focused on developing a unique and comprehensive partnership.”
The $1.85 million generated annually for the next 12 years goes directly to JMI Sports, which purchased UK Athletics’ multimedia rights in 2014 for $210 million over 15 years. Part of that initial deal was to grant naming rights to athletics facilities among other things.
That figure included a signing bonus of $29.4 million that helped fund capital projects like the baseball stadium, which is under construction.
After the announcement Monday, Barnhart said he wasn’t sure baseball stadium construction would have happened without the JMI contract. That will start a domino effect that will include a new tennis facility, which will go into the space where the baseball stadium is now.
When asked if he was concerned about fans’ reactions to the new name for the 44-year-old stadium, Barnhart said the decision was about the overall health of the athletics department.
“At the end of the day, I’ve still got to put the enterprise of making sure that our young people have the best opportunity to compete in the SEC,” he said, noting the changing landscape of college sports.
“If I said to our fans, ‘What’s most important? How we get there in terms of the names and things like that or is it more important — do you want us to compete well and have really quality student athletes?’ I think they all would say let’s go do something best for our student athletes and give us the best chance we can to compete.”
The selling of the naming rights was something Barnhart hinted at strongly when UK made the initial deal with JMI three years ago.
“As much of a traditionalist as I want to be and am, I also have to be a realist, and you have to think, OK, what is in the best interest of this athletic department and this university, and can it absolutely give us the best chance to keep doing — the end game for us, keep our programs moving in the direction we’ve got them going,” he added.
Kentucky will be the first school in the Southeastern Conference to go corporate with its football stadium naming rights, but not the first nationally or even the first in the state. The University of Louisville has Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium and Western Kentucky University plays at the Houchens Industries-L.T. Smith Stadium.
Kentucky’s playing surface, which is named C.M. Newton Field in honor of the former Kentucky athletics director, will now be called C.M. Newton Grounds at Kroger Field, which UK discussed with the Newton family before the announcement.
This probably won’t be the last UK athletics facility that will get a new name via the JMI Sports deal.
While no monikers are in the works yet, the marketing company also has been looking at selling the naming rights to the new baseball stadium and potentially the plaza near Gate 12 of Commonwealth Stadium.
That area is where the statue of Kentucky’s SEC trailblazers sits as well as the outdoor pregame concert stage.
It seems unlikely that Rupp Arena will get a corporate name anytime soon. The letter of intent signed by UK and the Lexington Convention Center says “Rupp Arena” will remain the same.
However, the convention center surrounding the men’s basketball facility has issued a request for proposal for naming rights of the new center after it is renovated and expanded.
This means that eventually the facility could be called something like “Rupp Arena at Acme Convention Center.”
Bill Owen, LCC executive director, said the contract is for 15 years, but won’t take effect until after next year’s basketball season. In that agreement, JMI will take over media rights within Rupp, but the contract will pay the convention center $4.75 million a year for those rights.
The convention center has received some proposals for naming rights, Owen said, but they are still in the discussion phase.
“It’s a response we feel we’ll be able to work with,” Owen said.
Staff writer Linda Blackford contributed to this report.