Warner Guards Military’s Pursestrings in RFK Deal

Posted April 13, 2005 at 6:40pm

Most fans don’t have any say in the names of their teams’ stadia and arenas. But John Warner isn’t just any fan.

As chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, the Virginia Republican injected himself into negotiations over the naming rights to the field at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium this week after he found out the National Guard was in discussions with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

So when the Washington Nationals host the Arizona Diamondbacks tonight in their first-ever regular season home game, they will be playing at plain old RFK, not National Guard Field at RFK. As of press time, negotiations were continuing over a modified role for the military at the stadium.

As chairman, Warner “oversees the Pentagon with his colleagues on the committee and his committee does the budget for spending on marketing programs, such as the ones that were contemplated here,” said John Ullyot, Warner’s communications director. “When he learned of the plans for the guard to purchase the rights to name the stadium, he indicated that that did not send the right signal.”

The National Guard had entertained the idea of purchasing the naming rights for the field for a total of $6 million for the three years the Nationals will play at RFK. That money would fund renovations of youth athletic centers in Washington, D.C.

Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, halted negotiations “based on the need to fund higher priorities, including recruiting and retention bonuses and equipment for troops deployed overseas,” according to a statement released by the bureau.

If the guard would have gone through with sponsoring the field, the $2 million-per-year price tag would have come out of the guard’s budget, which means the sponsorship would have been funded with federal dollars. This didn’t sit well with Warner, who voiced his opposition to the deal Monday.

Both Blum and Warner are in agreement that buying the field’s naming rights is “not a proper use of their money,” especially not during wartime when the guard and other military branches are dealing with limited resources, Ullyot added.

However, nixing the idea of National Guard Field has not stopped negotiations between the military, the District and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

After a two-hour meeting Tuesday evening with city officials and military personnel, including Warner, Blum and D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the Senator announced that negotiations were to continue, as he said that he was “optimistic that we can reach a meeting of the minds.” One possibility under discussion Wednesday is an arrangement that would allow branches of the military to utilize the stadium as an outlet for recruiting opportunities.

Warner has “never been opposed to the marketing” of the guard or other military branches, Ullyot said. He added that the military has a particular demographic that it is interested in, and being able to set up “kiosks, marketing tools and signage associated with baseball in D.C.” inside RFK would help the military reach its target audience.

Both Warner and Norton said after the meeting Tuesday that they were leaving further negotiations up to the city and military personnel; however, spokesmen from both offices said the Members were being kept up to date on the progression of the talks.

“I think the next news will be announced directly by the parties themselves — maybe the mayor’s office or the city and the Pentagon coming together to make an announcement,” Ullyot said.

As of press time, a statement from D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams’ (D) office had not been released and phone calls seeking comment from sports commission were not returned.

Meanwhile, a representative of the group calling itself Taxation Without Representation Field said the coalition would fax the commission a request that the stadium take on its name until a new moniker is officially adopted.

The group, which seeks to highlight the District’s lack of voting rights in Congress, has exceeded its goal of raising $51,000 as of Opening Day, but still is far short the $2 million per year that commission officials are seeking.