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U.S. Cellular Field, Home of the White Sox, to Become Guaranteed Rate Field

Chicago Tribune, August 24, 2016

By Chris Kuc

Out with the Cell, in with … well, fans aren’t quite sure what to call it yet.

In a marriage between the White Sox and one of the largest home lenders in the United States, the ballpark located at 35th and Shields will undergo a name change Nov. 1 from U.S. Cellular Field to Guaranteed Rate Field.

The Sox announced Wednesday a 13-year naming-rights agreement with the mortgage lender after the owner and operator of the stadium, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (ISFA), approved the name change at a board meeting earlier in the day.

News of the name change triggered immediate bemusement on social media with the hashtag #BetterSoxStadiumNames trending in Chicago.

White Sox fans long have been uneasy about calling the team’s home anything other than Comiskey Park.

When the current ballpark replaced venerable Comiskey Park in 1991, it was called New Comiskey Park. In 2003, the White Sox struck a naming-rights deal with U.S. Cellular for $68 million over 20 years. The park’s name was changed to U.S. Cellular Field, much to the displeasure of fans and the family of founding team owner Charles A. Comiskey.

“The Cell” became a popular nickname for U.S. Cellular Field, but what to make of Guaranteed Rate Field?

Sox outfielder Adam Eaton called the new name “different” after confirming the business of the new naming-rights partner.

“It’s a mortgage company?” Eaton asked. “Man, they must be doing really well. … I don’t really know what to say. I’m excited to see what kind of names they come up with for the (nickname). It doesn’t have that good of a ring to it, but I don’t know.”

Sprint bought U.S. Cellular’s spectrum in Chicago in 2013, making the stadium name of diminished marketing value, a least locally. The team approached U.S. Cellular to end the deal early and find a new stadium sponsor, according to Brooks Boyer, White Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing, and Guaranteed Rate stepped up to the plate.

Founded in 2000 by Victor Ciardelli, Guaranteed Rate is one of the largest home lenders in the United States, funding $18 billion in loans last year, according to the company. Securing naming rights for the Sox’s stadium will help turn the company into a household name, at least in Chicago.

In a statement, White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf praised Guaranteed Rate as a “partner founded in Chicago by Chicagoans, which shares our commitment to the city and to our fans.”

While the sides would not disclose the financial terms of the agreement, it includes broad marketing opportunities, both inside the stadium and through external media.

“There’s significant in-stadium signage, behind-home-plate signage and merchandising,” said Lynette Grinter, Guaranteed’s vice president of marketing. “There’s a lot of PR and community outreach opportunities and digital advertising included.”

It is a coup for Guaranteed Rate, a privately held Chicago-based mortgage lender that has its sights on becoming one of the top five mortgage companies in the country, right up there with Wells Fargo and Quicken Loans. Right now, it is ranked No. 8, according to trade publication Inside Mortgage Finance.

The company, which relies heavily on technology to streamline the mortgage process, has quickly built its business by opening offices and acquiring competitors across the country.

Since its founding, Guaranteed Rate has grown to more than 3,200 employees nationally, including more than 700 at its headquarters in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood, and has funded $13.7 billion in loans so far this year.

Guaranteed Rate hired home renovation TV star Ty Pennington as its spokesman three years ago, and beefed up its marketing budget with a national TV campaign and ads behind home plate at 10 major-league stadiums. Putting the company’s name on the home of the White Sox will be a big boost to the company’s brand, according to Ciardelli.

“This was a next great step for us to build a national brand name and to increase our awareness,” Ciardelli said.

A lifelong Chicago sports fan, Ciardelli said he attended every home game during the White Sox World Series run in 2005 and wants to help build attendance through promotion and community outreach as the team cycles through leaner times.

“We’re going to put a lot of effort into getting some buzz and having some fun in the stadium,” he said. “I hope to bring a lot of fans in. Our market share in Chicago is significant. We really want to use our customer base to drive more people into the ballpark. “

While changing the name of an iconic structure doesn’t always take, Ciardelli is confident it eventually will prove to be a good investment, especially if the team improves.

“The naming rights will work out for itself in the long run, if we’re both doing our part,” he said.

While the financial terms of the 13-year deal were not disclosed, it is likely significantly higher than the previous one, based on the current market value of stadium naming rights sponsorships.

“I’d be shocked if it wasn’t more than what U.S Cellular was paying,” said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of IEG, a Chicago-based sponsorship research and valuation firm.

On Tuesday, the Banc of California announced it had secured a 15-year naming-rights deal with a new Los Angeles pro soccer stadium for a reported $100 million, or roughly $6.7 million per year. Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports business consultant, said the White Sox deal should be in the same ballpark.

“You’re in one of the great corporate environments in the world, in the third-largest market in the United States, with a sport that plays 81 home games, with a stadium that is on one of the most traveled highways in the country,” Ganis said. “That should generate above-average rates.”

Mortgage lenders are an unusual category for stadium naming rights, which usually go to banks and airlines, Ganis said. Getting into such rarefied corporate air will likely burnish Guaranteed Rate’s image, he said.

“Getting the naming rights to the White Sox stadium adds a tremendous amount of credibility to Guaranteed Rate,” Ganis said.

ISFA Chairman Manny Sanchez said the facilities authority could receive up to $6.4 million in revenue to put back into the ballpark. He also said the IFSA figures to save at least $15 million and as much as $20-$25 million in potential facilities improvements as part of a compromise with the team for approving the naming-rights deal.

Sox players weren’t immediately sold on the park’s new name.

Infielder Tyler Saladino calls it the Cell, and he repeated the new name four times after learning of the change.

“That’s a different one,” Saladino said. “That’s going to take some getting used to. It’s a lot easier to say the Cell, but all right.”

Saladino and Eaton noted they like some parks with quirky names. Eaton said he likes that Houston's Minute Maid Park is nicknamed “The Juice Box.” Saladino always thought the Oakland Coliseum was a cool name and thought the short-lived variation of Coliseum was interesting too.

But neither had a suggestion yet about a Guaranteed Rate Field nickname.

“I’m sure they’ll come up with some unique names for the park,” Eaton said. “It’s not really a renowned company, which is kind of different.”

Chicago Tribune’s Colleen Kane, Robert Channick and Mary Ellen Podmolik contributed.