It became apparent from exchanges over the past week on social media that some Brewers fans believe the team treated MillerCoors poorly in agreeing to a new ballpark naming rights deal with American Family Insurance.
Some folks went as far as circulating a petition to keep the name Miller Park.
To be perfectly clear about this, MillerCoors was not an aggrieved party in these negotiations. In fact, I strongly suspect they were relieved to be taken off the hook in keeping the company’s name atop the ballpark.
In an attempt to get further clarity, I reached out to Brewers business president Rick Schlesinger to see just how active MillerCoors was in negotiations for a new naming rights deal to replace the one that expires after the 2020 season. Schlesinger made it clear that MillerCoors was given first dibs on keeping the name Miller Park but declined to do so.
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“We had a strong interest in extending our naming rights deal with MillerCoors and expressed that interest with them early last summer,” Schlesinger said. “There was not a reciprocity of interest by MillerCoors in those discussions. In all fairness, they let it be known immediately they wanted to continue our relationship with other marketing assets, which will continue.
“We did some strategic thinking and identified some potential partners we thought would be strong naming rights partners. We told MillerCoors we were going to approach other companies and they understood. They didn’t have an issue with that.”
Schlesinger declined to go into further specifics about his internal talks with MillerCoors. But it’s impossible to get out-bid for something when you never made a bid, right? And it certainly sounds as if that’s how this saga began.
Given MillerCoors’ blessing to find another naming rights partner, the Brewers quickly identified American Family, a long-standing Wisconsin company that had been a marketing sponsor with the team for many years. American Family quickly showed reciprocal interest and the sides struck a 15-year deal that was announced last week.
Executives with the Milwaukee Brewers and American Family Insurance announce the naming rights change from Miller Park.
Mike De Sisti, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Some of the confusion among fans might have stemmed from an internal email that MillerCoors sent its employees. That communique, which the company had to anticipate would get leaked to the media – and it did – said American Family “proactively pitched the Brewers an incredibly rich offer” for the new naming rights to the ballpark.
That wording was interpreted by some as meaning MillerCoors was outbid, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The “incredibly rich offer” phrasing also was curious because the Brewers and American Family kept the financial terms between them, with no known leaks to this point.
Asked to clarify their position, MillerCoors provided a statement saying: “Teams are always trying to cover their bases (pun intended) with major partners as agreements like the naming rights are coming to a close. The team identified AmFam, and likely others, as potential sponsors for the ballpark naming rights in the event we couldn’t come to an agreement.
“We had a great relationship with the Brewers long before the naming rights agreement started and we’ll continue to have a great relationship long after it ends a few years from now. So, while we would have loved to maintain the Miller Park naming rights, we’ll stay focused on elevating the overall beer experience at Miller Park, so Brewers fans can enjoy a home-field advantage this season and for years to come.”
Brewers owner Mark Attanasio talks about fan reaction to selling Miller Park naming rights to American Family.
Tom Haudricourt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Make of that statement what you will, but given the chance to say it tried to keep naming rights to the ballpark, MillerCoors declined to do so. That tells you all you need to know. Presented with that indifference, the Brewers did what any team would have done – go out and find a motivated sponsor. They quickly found one in American Family.
The business world has changed dramatically since Miller Brewing bought the naming rights to the Brewers’ new baseball home years before it opened in 2001. Back then, the brewery – located about a mile from the ballpark – was strictly a Milwaukee company known across the country as such.
Then came the merger with Coors and establishment of the company’s headquarters in Chicago. The bosses of those breweries would never admit so publicly but it had to be complicated to keep Miller’s name atop the ballpark of the Milwaukee Brewers when your mailing address is in downtown Chicago.
As for the quickly negotiated deal with American Family, Schlesinger said “they were a natural fit for us, so we pursued them early on. There were some other companies we had been getting feelers from that wanted to talk to us but they were not existing partners or had strong Wisconsin ties. That doesn’t mean they were disqualified but we felt American Family checked all the boxes of what we were looking for.
“There seems to be some misunderstanding about who approached whom. I want to make it clear that we approached American Family. There has been some confusion about whether they outbid MillerCoors. There was no out-bidding. MillerCoors did not reciprocate the interest in naming rights with us. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interested and haven’t engaged with us about other assets.”
Which is why the Brewers consider this a win-win situation. Not only do they have the naming rights deal with American Family in pocket, they will continue to do business with MillerCoors, long after the Miller Park signs are removed from the ballpark.
“This is one of those stories that people should be excited about,” Schlesinger said. “All three parties are happy with this deal. We try to make intelligent business deals and this was carefully thought out to include a community component and alignment of brands.
“It’s good for the ballpark and good for the Brewers. It’s good for American Family. It’s also good for MillerCoors because they can look to redirect and redeploy their marketing assets and dollars in other ways with us that work for them. At the end of the day, these kinds of deals have to work for everybody.
“For anyone who thinks we’re upset or no longer want to do business with MillerCoors, nothing could be farther from the truth. We respect companies making decisions that make sense for them.”
So, enough with the gnashing of teeth over the change of Miller Park’s name. With MillerCoors no longer interested in keeping its name atop the ballpark, it was going away in two years in any event.