Signs of change ahead for Astros' stadium name

As the final remnants of Enron Field's signage are removed, another energy company and a computer manufacturer reportedly are interested in putting their names on the Houston Astros' stadium.

The Astros paid $2.1 million in February to buy back the stadium naming rights from Houston-based Enron, which is embroiled in a well-publicized bankruptcy that has had ripple effects on the national economy. It has taken a month to remove all references to Enron, including large signage, from the stadium. The last sign was removed Tuesday.

"This whole process has really been a sad thing for this city," said Pam Gardner, the Astros' president of business operations. "A couple years ago, nobody could have predicted that we'd be going through this."

It is uncertain how long it will take before another company puts its brand mark on the stadium, which will be called Astros Field in the interim.

Gardner said 10 companies have expressed interest in purchasing the naming rights over the past month. Although Gardner said the Astros "won't negotiate in public," companies reportedly interested include two other Houston-based companies: Conoco, another energy company, and Compaq, the computer manufacturer that is in the midst of a merger with Hewlett-Packard.

Enron lasted little more than two years into a 30-year, $100-million naming rights deal. Despite a still-soft economy and a history of teams signing smaller deals when reselling stadium naming rights, Gardner said the Astros anticipate selling the rights for at least the value of the Enron deal.

"I don't believe we'll do a deal unless it is (at least worth the Enron rights)," Gardner said. "We think we've priced it fairly and the value is good, so we don't anticipate we'll get anything less than what Enron agreed to pay us."

Dean Bonham, whose company The Bonham Group has been involved in many naming rights negotiations, said he believes the rights for the Astros' stadium name could be worth more than $3.3 million per year, based on the newness of facility, the depth of Houston's corporate market and the white-knight factor.

"Whoever takes this away from Enron is going to be perceived as a white knight," Bonham said.

The Astros have to wait 30 to 60 days for the bankruptcy court to sign off on its naming-rights buyback before a deal with a new sponsor can be signed, Gardner said.

In the meantime, the only places the name Enron will remain is in the team's media guide, which was published before the buyback was completed, and on stationery and business cards that will be used by Astros personnel until the supply runs out.

"We're not going to be silly, so we'll use what we still have," Gardner said.

Enron's name has been removed from the team's Web site, and the Enron Field logos were airbrushed from photographs used in recent newspaper advertising. Four large signs were removed over the past couple of days, some by the Astros' maintenance staff, others by hired help.

"There's always costs involved when hiring outside assistance," Gardner said. "But the cost is insignificant considering that it's simply part of our mission to remove what we had so we can call this Astros Field."

The Astros plan to donate $150,000 to the Enron Employee Transition Fund, which was created to assist unemployed Enron workers. The donation is believed to be the largest to the fund.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn.com