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Creative funding or exploitation?

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- At Vernon Hills High School, the new football stadium will bear the name of a paint maker and the $80,000 scoreboard will be sponsored by a computer company.

In Naperville, an announcement will be made each game naming equipment manufacturer Under Armour as the official sponsor of the hometown Redhawks -- in case fans missed the company's two banners hanging in the high school stadium.

Commercialism in sports is hardly new, even at the prep level, but it's a route cash-strapped schools are taking with greater frequency to pay for new athletic facilities.


And what started as exclusive beverage contracts has mushroomed to big-dollar deals for stadium naming rights and apparel.

In recent years, a school district in Colorado sold the naming rights to its stadium to a telephone company for $2 million. A New Jersey elementary school agreed to corporate sponsorship of its gymnasium for $100,000. And in Seattle, a community protest forced the school board to drop plans to sell advertising for $1 million.

Critics say such agreements, like one Vernon Hills in suburban Chicago made with paint-maker Rust-Oleum, exploit youngsters.

"This is a town that's slapping a 'For Sale' sign on its school and its students," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, which tracks commercialization in schools. "Where is this going to end, when principals put patches on their backs advertising Rust-Oleum?"

Illinois officials believe Rust-Oleum Field will be the state's first school stadium named for a corporation when it opens in October. The maker of coatings and paints paid $100,000 to Vernon Hills to help with construction costs for the school's $1.8 million football stadium.

In addition to naming rights, the company gets its name displayed on a plaque near the entrance to the stadium and in the press room. The company also agreed to provide paint and supplies to maintain the facility for the next 20 years.

The stadium's scoreboard will be named after a local computer company that donated money to the project.

Marty Hickman, executive director of the Illinois High School Association, said he knew of no other high school district in Illinois to make a naming rights deal. He said he doubts this will be the last.


"I think part of it reflects the kind of economic situation we're in," he said. "People are looking for creative ways to fund programs, and this is certainly a creative way to do that."

Vernon Hills athletic booster Richard Friedenberg, who helped secure several corporate donations for the school, said it had no other option, other than asking voters to approve a tax increase to pay for the construction costs.

"We worked very hard to make sure we weren't exploiting these kids," he said. "They probably won't sell one more can of paint because of this, because if I didn't tell you where (the stadium) is you couldn't find it. There is no intrinsic value to them other than giving back to the school."

Opponents disagree, saying school officials are cashing in on their kids and eliminating choice at schools.

School board member Osie Davenport opposed two corporate sponsorships at Naperville Central that were eventually approved.

Under one agreement, Under Armour donated $7,580 worth of game towels, wrist bands, T-shirts and shorts in exchange for being promoted at home football games.

The school also received $6,400 worth of apparel from Adidas.

In return, Adidas became a partial sponsor for basketball, and all girls basketball players, from the freshman to the varsity levels, are required to buy Adidas apparel and footwear worn during school games.


Davenport said school districts do a disservice to students when they sign exclusive deals with companies.

And Hickman, of the high school association, said sponsorships might help pay the bills, but parents and school officials need to be cautious when they enter into corporate partnerships.

"I don't think that companies do that just because they're nice folks, out of the goodness of their hearts," he said. "What's the trade-off? That's something a lot of these schools like Vernon Hills are struggling with."

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