Originally created 02/08/02

Astros fans want stadium renamed

HOUSTON - The name "Enron" is on everything associated with the Houston Astros' ballpark - from the scoreboard to the tickets to the cups, napkins and plates.

On Thursday, fans lining up to buy tickets for Astros' games this year at Enron Field said they want it removed.

"It is time to change the name," Jerry Rogers said while he waiting in line at the box office. "It will always have a stigma associated with the failure of the corporation."

Enron Corp. has said it's willing to consider a buyout to remove its name from the Astros' 2-year-old retractable roof stadium, but the team says the bankrupt energy company has it backward.

"There's really not anything to buy," Astros owner Drayton McLane said. "They are actually the ones who owe us. They owe us for 27 years. It's kind of the other way around."

Enron paid for and benefited from the recognition the company got from its name being prominently placed on the park almost three years ago, McLane said.

Now, the Astros want to move forward from Enron's downfall and the negative image associated with it. When the two parties signed the naming rights agreement in 1999, Enron was a Wall Street darling and quickly growing into one of the nation's largest corporations.

Dean Bonham, whose Denver-based Bonham Group negotiates naming deals both for venues and sponsoring companies, said Enron must have appeared rock solid when it signed with the Astros.

But the company's stock price and credibility plummeted following the announcement of a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into Enron's accounting practices last year. Enron filed for bankruptcy in December.

"The Astros' business relationship with Enron leaves the Astros burdened with Enron's considerable baggage," attorneys for the team wrote in a motion filed this week with the New York court overseeing Enron's bankruptcy.

The motion asks the court to force Enron to either accept or reject the 30-year, $100 million naming rights agreement. It requests a hearing later this month and wants Enron's decision no later than Aug. 30.

On Aug. 31, Enron is scheduled to make a $3.65 million payment to the team. So far, Enron has made three annual payments totaling $10.25 million, the Astros said.

The team says the company remains current on its payments and Enron says it makes sense to continue paying on what the company perceives as an asset. Enron spent $108,000 on a suite and $90,000 for 2002 season box seats since filing for bankruptcy in order to live up to its contractual obligations with the Astros.

"Our responsibility is to get the maximum value for the asset for our creditors," Enron spokeswoman Karen Denne said. "One thing we could consider is the Astros buying us out of the contract."

Denne said Enron's lawyers are reviewing the agreement.

"It would all be subject to negotiation," she said.

Rogers, standing at a ticket window directly beneath Enron Field's name, said he hoped a resolution comes before the Astros' first at-bat April 2, "so if at all possible we can start the season with a new name on the field."

The team said that's unlikely and experts agree.

"The fact of the matter is if this is not settled soon, the Astros are saddled with the name of a company that is becoming more and more vilified on a daily basis," Bonham said. "The best-case scenario is that Enron and the Astros can come to some sort of agreement before August."

McLane said he's ready to talk, but Enron hasn't contacted him since the team filed its motion.

"We would love to settle it," McLane said.

Ticket buyers said they hoped the team would learn from the experience and get out of the naming rights business altogether, suggesting a return to the field's working name of The Ballpark at Union Station.

"It's too commercialized," fan Billy Tipps said. "Let's play baseball."


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