‘Groundbreaking’ Arco Arena name elicited tough stance from Sacramento Bee in 1980s

When the Sacramento arena naming-rights contract with Arco expires next week, I’ll have mixed emotions. Something considered to be heartbreaking by Sacramento Bee staffers 25 years ago is being called “groundbreaking” by current editors. Truth is, the name Arco Arena brought a tough and controversial initial response from the local paper. 

Back then, I was sports editor of The Bee, which purchased a table at the Sacramento Kings’ 1985 preseason community luncheon event a few months after the deal to change the name of the 10,333-seat temporary facility from “Kings Arena” to “Arco Arena.” I dreaded going, because all was not well between the team and newspaper. 

The Bee refused to call it Arco Arena in news stories – on the grounds Arco was just placing advertising content in Bee news coverage – and instead called it Kings Arena until the current permanent facility was finished three years later. The Kings’ ownership, then the Sacramento Sports Association, was vocally upset at the decision. Worse for me, our table at the luncheon happened to be near the front – and I was the only Bee representative in-seat when the event began. 

Gregg Lukenbill, then managing general partner of the Kings, looked down at me as he strolled to the podium. We had struggled through numerous private conversations on the issue. He knew I was a loyal-but-less-than-enthusiastic supporter of The Bee’s policy.  I knew he felt our position was pompous if not downright arrogant. Worse, I knew Lukenbill wouldn’t be able to resist a dig: 

“Well, I see the folks from The Bee had trouble finding Kings Arena,” Lukenbill quipped. “I guess they should have followed the signs to Arco Arena like the rest of us.” 

Everyone laughed, but in retrospect it probably summed up things well. Few other media outlets saw it as a problem. However, Bee staffers were significantly split – leading to many interesting discussions over how to handle sports naming rights years before it became de rigueur in international marketing.                           

In those days, editorial decisions at The Bee began and ended with executive editor Gregory Favre, a top-notch newspaper editor who was intensely passionate about excellence in journalism and the role of the press in society. He was recruited from Chicago by C.K. McClatchy and led the rise of The Bee from state to national recognition. He also was an active and knowledgeable sports fan. So when Favre expressed concern over “Arco” being in every news story and picture published about the team and arena, he was not being frivolous. 

To the Kings, converting the warehouse was a way to move the team from Kansas City quickly – and the Arco deal would help fund a new permanent arena. To Favre, this money was being used to promote the oil company, not the facility – which he contended was originally converted and named solely to house the team. He believed Arco was simply buying its way into daily news coverage 

Like many Bee staffers, I agreed but wrestled with how far that should go. This was new turf for mainstream journalists. Were we reporting the truth by calling it something different from the name on the building? Also, how would we handle a photo with prominent Arco logos? You can only crop them out so much. And what about other divisions of the newspaper, such as advertising, circulation and marketing? Were newsroom concerns worth all this? 

The issue came to a head in a standing-room-only meeting of editorial managers plus other guests. Favre sat at the head of the table, per custom. He led a lengthy, wide-ranging and robust discussion. Afterward, he took a straw vote on the issue. The overwhelming consensus was to call it Arco Arena. Favre thanked everyone for their input, announced we would call it Kings Arena until they built a new facility, and that pretty much ended the meeting. 

None of us had any illusions it was a democracy, but the decision affected the newspaper well beyond editorial. Advertising and marketing account managers had to deal with it for years when handling arena events. Some subscribers boycotted briefly. And there were predictably caustic letters-to-the-editor. However, the issue soon lost steam – then went away completely when the permanent arena was built. 

All the angst we expended back then seemed futile, until now. With fewer companies willing to dole out for traditional big-ticket advertising – especially long-term vehicles such as stadium naming – the issue could simply disappear due to irrelevance. I mean, Power Balance Pavilion? Really? 

In the end, the journalistic quandary about free advertising in news stories will be resolved by economics, not ethics. What’s next, advertising on the front page of The Bee? 

New Old Flame (Stan Johnston)


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