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Miami Dolphins' stadium picks up new name

| Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010

MIAMI — The Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl will be played over the next couple of Sundays in South Florida. Exactly where — that's causing a little confusion.

To some fans, the building that's hosting both games will always be Joe Robbie Stadium. But the NFL's Web site called it Dolphin Stadium earlier this week. And its official name, as of last week, is Sun Life Stadium. Even some of the Pro Bowlers were surprised to hear that.

Toronto-based Sun Life Financial is paying at least $4 million a year for a five-year naming rights agreement to the stadium where the Miami Dolphins and Florida Marlins play.

"We hope this is the last name that will ever be on the stadium," said Priscilla Brown, senior vice president and head of U.S. marketing for Sun Life, a company that provides financial services to 20 million customers in 25 countries but wants to raise its U.S. profile.

Just how many name changes this makes depends a bit on how you count.

The stadium opened in 1987 as Joe Robbie Stadium, honoring the Dolphins' founding owner. It has also been Pro Player Park, Pro Player Stadium, Dolphins Stadium, Dolphin Stadium and Land Shark Stadium.

Asked to name the stadium where they were playing this weekend, some of the Pro Bowlers practicing Thursday didn't know.

"I know it just changed. I'm not sure what it is though," Tennessee Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch said with a laugh.

Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork also didn't know the name, but when told he said, "Sun Life• Hmm. That's a nice name. It's fitting. It's very fitting."

Texans receiver Andre Johnson said he heard the new name on the news. Meanwhile, Josh Cribbs with Cleveland Browns referred to it as Dolphins Stadium.

Some fans want to keep it simple — the first name is the only name.

"It's always been Joe Robbie Stadium to me and I call it Joe Robbie Stadium until somebody corrects me," said 34-year-old Richard Gomez, a lifelong Dolphins fan. "Growing up with the Robbies as the owner, it always had meaning. Everything else is marketing, it's advertising."

Throughout his short tenure, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross — who completed his purchase of the team from Wayne Huizenga in January 2009 — has been building new and deeper business relationships for the club.

A billionaire real estate developer, Ross hired CEO Mike Dee, a Boston Red Sox executive. He also brought aboard limited partners such as Venus and Serena Williams, Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Marc Anthony.

"We obviously were setting out to find a new partner," Dee said of the Sun Life deal. "We had criteria that was important to us, namely, we wanted a name that fit the facility. We wanted a company who had a long-established brand."

Sam Kennedy, president of Fenway Sports Group, the company that brokered the introduction between Sun Life and the Dolphins, said the stadium brand is extremely important to the fan base and to the teams.

"You create an identity of the team with the venue," he said. "Stability and management for sports franchises is very important ... You have one chance to make a first impression. The new ownership has made a great first impression."

Maybe, but fans such as Gomez say all the name changes have been annoying.

And as far as sports marketing goes, the stadium wouldn't be changing names so frequently in an ideal scenario, said Russ Spielman, a partner in The Agency Sports Management & Marketing, based in New York.

Such sponsorship deals are best for a less-established company that wants to get its name out to become better known, he said.

"It's effective if you are really looking for brand building and name recognition," he said. "It's definitely difficult to retrain fans to identify stadiums with new names."

Corporate names can also backfire, especially when they get identified with unsavory events. For example, the Houston ballpark that opened in 2000 was once named Enron Field after the city's energy company. But it switched to Astros Field and then to Minute Maid Park after the Enron scandal.

Some teams, like the New York Yankees, always stick with their team's name for their stadium, said Richard Davies, a sports historian at the University of Nevada, Reno.

"I would think it takes way from its personality and it takes away the orientation of the average fans to the ball clubs that use it," Davies said. "It's nothing more than an example of the greed of the American private owner. ... It reflects the greatly intensified commercialization of American sports."

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