Sponsor ties get mixed reviews

Tourism, nonprofit officials view deals as creative financing

Aquarium gets needed funds

Critics fear proliferation of commercial messages

July 25, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

As the National Aquarium in Baltimore contemplated sponsors for its 65,000-square-foot Australia expansion, its marketers drafted a wish list: the Discovery Channel's show Animal Planet was at the top.

Within 18 months of when Aquarium officials began to court the cable channel in late 2002, the two businesses sealed a 10-year, title partnership deal that will name Baltimore's new exhibit scheduled to open next year: Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes.

The arrangement offers the aquarium, through its new wing, a platform to publicize its conservation efforts to millions. It provides Animal Planet with another outlet to build its audience.

Officials in tourism and nonprofit sectors laud the deal as an intelligent pairing. They also see it as a form of creative financing at a time when attractions are frequently wrestling with budget concerns. Critics, however, worry that the arrangement marries education with a commercial cable channel as a way to, at least subliminally, fuel merchandise sales.

Executives from the National Aquarium and Silver Spring-based Discovery Communications Inc., parent of the Animal Planet show, have been tight-lipped about the fine points of the relationship.

They decline to reveal the price of the sponsorship other than to say it is a significant part of the $16.5 million in private capital that the aquarium has raised toward the $66 million expansion.

Recent partnerships for similar attractions nationally have been in the $8 million to $10 million range, including a 10-year, $7.8 million deal between Fuji Photo Film Co. and the National Zoo in Washington for its famed giant panda exhibit.

"We have been asked via the contract not to discuss any of the financial terms," said David Pittenger, executive director of Baltimore's aquarium.

"If you look at the program that Animal Planet does and then look at what we do, we're both connecting people with nature. I think there are just great opportunities in the future. I don't know where they'll go, because we've been very much focused on the exhibit," he said.

"It is a significant level of support," said W. Clark Bunting, executive vice president of Discovery U.S. Networks Group. "We just simply do not give out numbers."

From cultural attractions to sports stadiums, corporate sponsorships have become a frequent way to "fill the gaps," experts say. A potential downside is if the sponsor becomes mired in controversy, such as when the Houston Astros' new baseball stadium had to change from being Enron Field to Minute Maid Park.

While the financial aspects of the sponsorship are significant, Pittenger said, they are far from its sole benefits.

`A connection'

"None of us would be so excited if this were just a straight business deal," Pittenger said. "This is not strictly business, it's a connection between two businesses whose essence is very much in tune."

"One of the things we bring to the table is a place. What they have is the millions and millions of viewers," he said.

At least one group concerned about excessive commercial messages being sent to children is worried about the deal, and others like it.

"Kids are bombarded with marketing from the moment they wake up in the morning until the moment they go to bed," said psychologist Susan Linn, author of Consuming Kids: the Hostile Takeover of Childhood. "If we want kids not to watch TV, why do we want them to go to the aquarium and see a television channel advertised?"

Linn, who works with the Coalition to Stop the Commercial Exploitation of Children in Boston, deplores the shrinking of commercial-free public space.

"It's not this in isolation," she said. "There are fewer and fewer places that children can go without being bombarded with commercial messages. Often it's for things that are not good for them. In this case, it's a message to `Go watch television.' That's the bottom line."

Discovery store

Her criticism echoes other debates over commercialization that have involved school districts selling sponsorships to beverage vendors and a private operator of public schools who offered free TVs for classrooms that would accept a few daily minutes of commercials.

In Baltimore, the Animal Planet Australia exhibit will be just across the water from Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion, where the Discovery Channel has its highest-revenue-generating store of 70 across the country. Aquarium officials point out that no Discovery or Animal Planet retail store will be located within the aquarium. Also, no Animal Planet items are to be sold at the aquarium's new store, which will feature a variety of Australian items.

William M. Chipps, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report in Chicago, which tracks and analyzes corporate sponsorships, said corporate sponsorships typically are taken in stride by the public.

"I think consumers have gotten to the point where there isn't the major backlash of 10 or 15 years ago," Chipps said. "Most people know that nonprofits are struggling these days."

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