When Selling Station Naming Rights, SEPTA Can Learn from New York

Forget confusing AT&T Station, here are four sponsorshops the transit agency should pursue right now.

Not overheard at a station somewhere along the Broad Street Line:

“I’m psyched! I’ve got these great seats for the Flyers home opener at the AT&T Sports and Entertainment Complex.”

“Whathaf**k is that?”

“You mean you don’t know? I thought you knew everything about this town. It’s down in South Philly.”

“Oh, you mean the Wells Fargo Center.”

“No, I mean the AT&T Sports and Entertainment Complex. See? It’s right there on that map, down at the end of the Orange Line. Isn’t that why they call that station AT&T?”

* * *

Well, no, it’s not. It’s called AT&T because the telecom company gave SEPTA a chunk of change to pay for the upkeep of what had been called Pattison Station in exchange for slapping its name on it for five years.

That deal, tied to AT&T’s status as the only wireless carrier that can guarantee you a signal in SEPTA’s subway tunnels, expires year after next, at which time I expect the agency to try to ink a renewal at the very least. But before it does, maybe it should pay attention to how they’re doing it in New York City.

The trouble with the AT&T naming-rights deal is that it erased useful orientation information from the SEPTA map. The first purpose of a train station name be to should be to tell you where you are. That can be done with the name of a cross street, a nearby landmark or a neighborhood or community. It can’t be done with the name of a corporate sponsor alone. Visitors unfamiliar with the city now have no way of relating AT&T station to anything going on above it.

New York City Transit officials actually grappled with this very issue when, in 2009 — the year before SEPTA approved the AT&T naming-rights deal — it approved a 20-year, $4 million deal to add “Barclays Center” to the name of its Atlantic Avenue subway and commuter train stations in downtown Brooklyn. (Let me pause for a moment to say that at least when it came to revenue, SEPTA negotiated the better deal: It got $5 million in exchange for only a five-year commitment, leaving it free to go back to the well much sooner.)

The difference is this: The Barclays Center is an actual place — a new sports arena bearing the bank’s name located right above the station. And as the New York MTA now contemplates allowing more such deals to take place, it’s gone and put in writing its let’s-not-confuse-the-riders-about-where-they-are policy. According to a recent New York Times report, renamed stations must still “help orient customers as they navigate the MTA network.” The MTA will also only consider sponsors “with a unique or iconic geographic, historic or other connection to such facility that would be readily apparent to typical MTA customers.”

So much for AT&T Station, which passes neither test down here.

The good news is, even though SEPTA’s rapid transit network is far less extensive than New York’s, there are still opportunities to strike naming-rights deals that still allow riders to figure out where they are. And while my SEPTA sources couldn’t say whether the agency is actively looking for more station sponsors right now, one did say, “SEPTA will look at any revenue source provided it is tasteful and not controversial.”

The AT&T deal passes those tests, but at the expense of letting riders know where they are. That can be solved by adopting New York-style rules for selling naming rights. We don’t lack for potential sponsors or stations to rename. Here are a few we can think of off the top of our head:

Let’s start with one of the busiest Regional Rail stations, Suburban Station. When Penn Center went up next to it in the 1950s, for a while, the Pennsylvania Railroad added it to the station’s name. This time around, why not persuade Comcast to pay for the privilege of having its headquarters atop Comcast Center Station?

A bit to the east of there, managed-services giant Aramark could adopt either 11th Street station on the Market-Frankford Line or Market East Station  — or both — with a deal to give it, or them, the name “Aramark Tower.” The building sits right in between the two.

There are a raft of restaurants that cluster around Second and Market streets in Old City. Any one of them could pick up the tab for the subway station under the intersection, though it’s likely only Starr Restaurant Group could afford the price tag. Continental Station, anyone? (It would even reinforce the area’s Revolutionary-era connections.)

Out in the ‘burbs, we could persuade Live Nation, perhaps, to help out concertgoers by adding “Tower Theater” to 69th Street Terminal’s name. (That’s one station whose original name we should keep as part of any renaming deal, given its importance as a transfer point.)

And these only scratch the surface.

And while all of the potential deals put together wouldn’t plug SEPTA’s looming budget gap, they would at least keep some more stations in good repair — only this time, in ways that wouldn’t disorient the riders.

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