Citi Field Is an Embarrassment

By Phil KerpenPolicy Director, Americans for Prosperity

As a die-hard New York Mets fan, Opening Day is one of my favorite days of the year. Even this year (after two heartbreaking Septembers in a row) I can't help but be hopeful that this year might be the year. Unfortunately, the excitement of the new season-and of the new stadium-is tempered by the sense that there is something very wrong (embarrassing, even) about my team playing in a building named after a corporate failure, a company dependent on bailout after bailout of taxpayer dollars to stay in business.

The outrage over Wall Street bonuses has raised tricky issues about how much say taxpayers ought to have in the operations of companies that depend on their bailout dollars to stay in business.

So what can be done about the Citi Field embarrassment? Some members of Congress, led by Democrat Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and Republic Ted Poe of Texas, want the Treasury Department to force Citi to break its naming rights contract with the Mets. But doing that would probably be illegal, breaking a valid contract that the Mets could go to court to have enforced. Far different from issuing a bonus, Citi's stake in the deal was intended to be marketing to millions of Mets fans across the country.

Congress could step in by changing the law to prohibit that companies that receive bailout funds put their names on sports venues-but then we'd have Congress exercising political control over marketing budgets, an even further erosion of our free market economic system.

We're in this situation as a consequence of the decision to bail out Citi and other financial companies, like AIG, instead of forcing them through a bankruptcy court where contractual obligations would have been restructured or terminated in an orderly fashion.

The best solution would be for Mets owner Fred Wilpon to sit down with Citi (and possibly with Treasury officials) and renegotiate the deal. Citi should agree to a buy out of the contract that would replace some of the short-term revenue for the Mets while allowing the Citi name to be taken off the stadium. (The Citi logo is already absent from the patch the players will wear on their uniforms this year - it literally just says "Inaugural Season.") Doing so would free up some cash flow for cash-starved Citi while building enormous good will with Mets fans, New Yorkers, and the American people.

It would also let the Mets do what they know was really the right thing to do all along: name the stadium Jackie Robinson Field, in honor of New York's sports hero with the most important lasting contribution not just to baseball but to American society. The facade of the stadium looks like Ebbets Field, and the homage to Robinson was long planned and expected before the Citi deal came together and money spoke more loudly than civic pride. The Yankees didn't sell the name of the new Yankee Stadium, and the Mets should have had the same big-picture vision of building their own powerful brand. Jackie Robinson Field, in the long term, would likely be more economically successful than any generic corporate-named venue could be.

Given Citi's implosion, the Mets have been handed a second chance to do the right thing. Just imagine the enormous goodwill and positive publicity the Mets would receive if they rebranded the stadium Jackie Robinson Field. Be a hero, Mr. Wilpon.

Mr. Kerpen is director of policy for Americans for Prosperity.