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Thursday, February 28
Just don't call it the Astrodome

Associated Press

HOUSTON -- The Eighth Wonder of the World. The Big Bubble. The world's first domed stadium.

Call it anything you want, but don't call it the Astrodome if you're a reporter covering the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which could be one of the last major events at the historic stadium.

Media organizations requesting credentials to cover the event, which winds up a three-week run this week, were notified this year they must agree to refer to the Astrodome and other facilities on its grounds by new names derived from a $300 million sponsorship pact with Houston-based Reliant Energy Inc.

According to an agreement reporters and photographers must sign, the Astrodome must be called the Reliant Astrodome. Organizations calling it only the "Astrodome," its name since opening in 1965, face possible revocation of their passes.

"It's the richest naming rights deal in sports facility history," said Leroy Shafer, assistant general manager of the rodeo. "When you pay that kind of money, it's extremely important those buildings carry that name and that that name be recognized."

Reliant, which owns the major regional electricity utility and markets power across the country, in October 2000 purchased the naming rights to all the facilities on the county-owned Astrodome complex in south Houston.

The crown jewel of the deal, which runs through 2032, is not the Astrodome but the Houston Texans' field nearing completion next door, Reliant Stadium. The contract covers existing facilities, such as Reliant Arena and Reliant Hall (formerly the Astroarena and Astrohall), and future ones, like Reliant Center, a convention hall under construction nearby.

All the buildings comprise Reliant Park, formerly the Astrodomain.

The rodeo has been an Astrodome tenant since the historic stadium opened its doors, after former Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz convinced officials not to build their own rodeo-only facility in northwest Houston.

Along with the NFL expansion team, the city and the county, the rodeo is a major partner in building Reliant Stadium and shares in the naming rights booty. Attendance this year is expected to be around 2 million and likely will surpass that in 2003.

As Reliant tries to attract new electricity customers across Texas in the wake of the state's embryonic deregulation program, company spokeswoman Sandy Fruhman said publicity is vital to its branding strategy.

"When a company invests in naming rights for a facility, it's reasonable to expect the terms of the agreement will be honored," Fruhman said.

Dean Bonham of The Bonham Group, a Denver company that handles naming deals for both sponsors and facilities, said he hasn't negotiated such a stringent media requirement into one of his contracts.

"We place very strict provisions requiring the team to use the appropriate name of the facility," Bonham said. "However in the ones I've negotiated myself or analyzed, I don't recall anything to the level of detail requiring the press either to use the name or have their credential revoked."

Not everyone in rodeo circles is on board. In a local television commerical promoting the rodeo and involvement by his company, Dynegy Inc., Houston businessman Chuck Watson repeatedly referred to the stadium as "the Astrodome."

Dynegy and Reliant are competitors in the electric generation business.

The issue will be somewhat moot soon. Most of the events currently associated with the Astrodome, including the rodeo and December college football bowl game, will move to Reliant Stadium this year.

It's unclear what will become of the Astrodome after that, especially if Houston is eliminated from the running for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Shafer acknowledged that the average Houstonian on the street is unlikely to refer to the Dome by its corporate-sponsored moniker, adding that the rodeo isn't strong-arming reporters at the rodeo, which runs through March 2.

"We are not going to come running after the media if someone accidentally slips," he said.

Of course, reporters can avoid the issue altogether by calling the stadium by its formal, if boring, name: the Harris County Domed Stadium.

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