In limited market, Phoenix teams turn to Native American communities to sponsor arenas

The NBA’s Phoenix Suns play at Talking Stick Resort Arena, named for the casino property on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Phoenix. (Cronkite News file photo)

Four major professional sports teams. Four professional sports venues. Nine different names.

Phoenix is one of 13 metropolitan areas across the U.S. that is home to a team from each of the four major professional sports leagues.

But thanks to corporate consolidation, increasing scrutiny on the return on sports marketing and a narrow market for title sponsorships in Arizona, the four buildings that host these teams have had revolving titles on their marquees.

Bank One Ballpark became Chase Field. The Cardinals went from Cardinals Stadium to University of Phoenix Stadium without moving the NFL team a single yard. Glendale’s NHL hockey home that was once known as Arena is now Gila River Arena. And the oldest of the four professional sports venues, Talking Stick Resort Arena, is now on its third name, following America West Arena and US Airways Center.

Eric Fischer, director of global brand media at and an adjunct professor at Arizona State University who teaches sports marketing, said Phoenix lacks a large pool of local corporations willing to foot the bill for stadium naming rights.

“Phoenix is a very unusual city because there are so many people, yet the corporate base that would have that type of money really isn’t that large,” he said. “So there is kind of a dichotomy there that probably doesn’t help the local stadiums. There are only a few companies that it would make sense for on that scale.”

And, Fischer said, a naming-rights deal can be a hard sell to a company’s leadership.

“Nowadays, marketing expense is really being scrutinized more than ever by your (chief financial officer),” he said.

However, Native American communities have stepped in to fill the void. Phoenix has an advantage over most markets because there are several Native American communities in the surrounding area, all wanting to promote their brands and with thriving casino operations to pay for it.

Two of the four arenas in the Phoenix market now have naming-rights deals with resorts or casinos associated with a tribe, as does the spring-training facility of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The NBA’s Phoenix Suns play at Talking Stick Resort Arena,named for the casino property on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community east of Phoenix.

Gila River Arena in Glendale, where the Arizona Coyotes will play hockey for at least one more season, has a naming-rights deal with Gila River Casinos of the Gila River Indian Community.

Major League Baseball’s Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies share Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, which is located on Salt River Pima-Maricopa land.

Blessing McAnlis-Vasquez, the marketing project manager for the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, said the tribe sees value in the name recognition that comes with a naming-rights deal.

“I think it is important, not just for the Salt River community but for our enterprises, to take a 360-degree aerial view when it comes to marketing, when it comes to branding,” she said. “We are trying to think big-picture, so we are strategically aligning ourselves with organizations that have like-minded values and have like-minded customer bases.”

To that end, she said the Suns, along with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and the Arena Football League’s Arizona Rattlers, which also use Talking Stick Resort Arena, are a good fit.

“They have a very family-value organization, and they have been great people to work with,” she said of the Suns, who manage the arena. “We want people to not only be talking about Talking Stick Resort and Talking Stick as a destination, but also the Salt River Indian Community.”

Fischer said that consolidation in the airline industry has impacted pro teams, with arenas around the country named for airlines.

“That is a category that has kind of diminished,” he said.

When America West Airlines combined with US Airways, the downtown arena the Suns play in went from America West Arena to US Airways Center.

When US Airways merged with American Airlines, the Suns needed a new naming-rights partner because there were already two other arenas in the country with American Airlines as part of their name.

McAnlis-Vasquez said the pre-existing relationship between the Suns and Salt River-Pima Community made the transition to Talking Stick Resort Arena an easy one.

“I will say that because we had a strategic partnership with the Phoenix Suns and the organization prior to the naming rights becoming available, we did have first right of refusal for that,” she said. “So we were able to enter negotiations with that pretty quickly after we knew that would become available to us.”

Fischer said naming rights allow companies to reach a large audience over an extended period of time.

“It is getting harder and harder to reach people,” he said.

“There are companies that actually can tell you how much value you have derived from your naming rights,” he said. “They are looking at every second that the name is on camera.”

Stadiums aren’t the only sports properties that benefit by selling naming rights.

The Waste Management Phoenix Open attracts the largest crowds on the PGA Tour, yet it also has gone through a few deals with sponsors. After FBR, a financial services company that held naming rights from 2004 to 2009, pulled out, the Phoenix event was one of at least five PGA Tour stops looking for a title sponsor in 2010.

“We searched out a number of different companies,” said Andy Markham, chairman of the 2017 WM Phoenix Open. “We also worked through the PGA Tour. And Waste Management was looking to get into the game as well. So we thought it was just a natural fit.”

Markham said Waste Management gets to attach its name to a huge sporting event that “aligns perfectly, too, with their sustainability initiatives.”

But like the local professional teams in the Phoenix area, Waste Management also has found support from an Indian community.

The golf tournament recently announced that it has signed a “presenting-sponsor” deal with the Ak-Chin Indian Community, which is located in Pinal County about 35 miles south of Phoenix. Presenting sponsorships are essentially tagged on to the name of the event.

The competitive Phoenix naming-rights market could get even more complicated in the near future. Arizona State University officials have talked about selling naming rights to Sun Devil Stadium, which is currently undergoing a makeover.

The Coyotes and Arizona State have talked about a possibly sharing a new arena, and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton has expressed the desire to build a new downtown arena that would be shared, in his vision, by the Coyotes and Suns.

“Within Arizona, the next five years really are going to be interesting,” Fischer said. “Across the country, across the world, I think the (trend) curve is still on the way up.”