It may fall to a billionaire hog farmer to name Raleigh's new arena

There's a soap opera playing out in Carolina, and it's not over how many Dookies will abandon Coach K for the NBA. No, this saga involves the building and naming of a new arena for hockey's Hurricanes and N.C. State's Wolfpack. It's a story of big bucks, corporate intrigue-and the outside chance that the rest of the country will view the folks in Raleigh as ... well, a bunch of oinkers.

Our tale begins in the late 1980s, when N.C. State decided to replace creaky old Reynolds Coliseum, home of Wolfpack hoops. To raise money for the then-$66 million project, wealthy alumni were hit up for fat donations. One of them-a rich pig farmer named Wendell Murphy-anted up big, in exchange for the rights to name the new "Entertainment & Sports Arena." Murphy, known for his devotion to N.C. State and his tight-lipped approach to the press, never confirmed what he paid for the rights, but estimates range from $5 million to $7 million. In any event, the story might have ended there if that other Murphy's law hadn't kicked in.

You know the one: When building a sports facility, whatever can go wrong, will. In this case it was a planning error, or what local papers dubbed "the $26 million oops." That's the amount by which consultants underestimated the costs of upgrading the arena to accommodate an NHL franchise, which was necessitated by the Hartford Whalers' decision to relocate to the area. But the team's 1997 move south-the rechristened Hurricanes have been playing their home games in Greensboro, N.C.-didn't wreak havoc with just the arena construction plans.

Naming rights, as it happens, are the runaway train of the sports biz. What started humbly in 1973-that's when Rich Products Corp. (as in Coffee Rich) agreed to pay $60,000 a year for the naming rights to the Buffalo Bills' stadium-has turned into a marketing juggernaut: The concept of buildingas- billboard has exploded in both practice and price. Four years ago, for example, Fleet Bank signed a 15-year, $30 million deal to name the new home of the Celtics and Bruins. Just this past April, Enron Corp., a Texas energy company, signed a 30-year deal worth more than $100 million for the naming rights to the Astros' new ballpark. "Naming rights are more permanent than a TV spot, and give a company billions and billions of impressions around the world," says Russell Wallach, vice president of naming rights for ProServ. "These deals have become the Super Bowl of the sports marketing business."

That's why 3Com Corp. gets so annoyed when people insist on calling the Giants' ballpark Candlestick. And that's why the Hurricanes decided they wanted a piece of those naming rights millions. When the hockey team signed on to the Raleigh arena project, club officials told the school that they wanted the naming rights-or, rather, the right to sell those rights to the highest bidder. The Hurricanes were willing to pay for the privilege-about $10 million, from which Mr. Murphy's investment would be repaid-but the deal required the hog honcho's agreement. He gave it, and, again, things might have ended happily if not for one hitch: Carolina is having a tough time finding a company willing to shell out the $20-30 million that the team wants to raise. That's partly because Raleigh has a dearth of companies rich enough to foot the bill, and partly because the resident teams don't have the name recognition needed to attract a sponsor from other parts. "We're talking about the old Hartford Whalers and an N.C. State team that hasn't been very good lately," says Reef Ivey, Murphy's lawyer. Even Compuware Corp., whose Gail Force Holdings subsidiary owns the Hurricanes, doesn't appear to want its corporate name on the arena.

Which is why many observers think the Hurricanes will walk away from the rights deal, leaving Murphy to name the place. The billionaire has indicated that he wants to name the arena after his family. But some folks in Raleigh-always fretting about the region's "New South" image-can't help but laugh nervously when it is suggested that Murphy could choose the "Pork Palace" or "Chitlins Center." Says Ivey: "My guess is that he'll just name it after his family. But, then again, maybe it'll be Hog Heaven."