Oklahoma City leaders, including Mayor Mick Cornett, are urging the Oklahoma City RedHawks and the Chickasaw Nation to reconsider their decision to rename the Bricktown ballpark after the town of Newcastle and the tribe's casino, Newcastle Casino.
While team and casino representatives hailed the agreement for the new name — Newcastle Field at Bricktown — as a new way to promote both venues, critics saw the deal as disrespectful to Oklahoma City and a move to groom young people into the next generation of compulsive gamblers.
“It's a terrible choice,” Councilman Pete White said. “As a baseball fan, I know two of the greatest players ever — Pete Rose and ‘Shoeless' Joe Jackson — are not in the Hall of Fame because of gambling connections. So to name a ballpark after a gambling operation flies in the face of the strong stance baseball took against gambling.”
Not a single city official or representative of Bricktown was on hand as team general manager, Michael Byrnes, and the casino's marketing manager, Jennifer Cross, unveiled the new name and logo.
Byrnes explained the ballpark's previous naming rights agreement with AT&T expired as the RedHawks owner, Los Angeles-based Mandalay Sports, was buying the team from previous owners Bob Funk and Scott Pruitt. Byrnes noted the relationship with Newcastle Casino began two years ago with advertising inside the ballpark.
“The goal of this expanded partnership is to continue raising awareness of both organizations' entertainment value among baseball fans and casino patrons alike,” Cross said. “Through innovative promotions at both locations, as well as through social media channels, the possibilities to this partnership are endless. Our hope is to continue the mutually beneficial partnership started less than two years ago and increase traffic to both destinations.”
Readers upset by new name
News of the renaming was not received well by readers of The Oklahoman on Wednesday, on social media or among city leaders.
Some, like Cornett and Ward 2 Councilwoman Meg Salyer, were unhappy with naming a $34 million ballpark built and paid for by Oklahoma City taxpayers after Newcastle, a suburb of 7,700 people.
“It's disappointing to see a ballpark built with taxpayer dollars from Oklahoma City carry the name of another town,” Cornett said. “I've talked to them and explained my position.”
Both Cornett and Salyer noted they have no control over the naming rights, which was sold for $100,000 as part of a lease agreement with the previous team's ownership when the ballpark was built in 1997. At the time, then Mayor Ron Norick persuaded city council members to approve the lease after just three days of review. No member of the current council was in office at the time.
Salyer said she was troubled by the renaming of the ballpark after another town and casino but added she would be more worried if the city were to lose the team — a concern voiced in 1997 by Norick as he pressed the council to quickly approve the 28-year lease.
“Would I have preferred it to be called something else representative of Oklahoma City?” Salyer asked. “Yes. But I'm very supportive of the RedHawks, I'm glad they are here. I think they're doing a good job.”
RedHawks, casino defend decision
Byrnes and Cross defended the naming rights deal as a means to continue improvements at the ballpark. Cross said she looks forward to promoting the casino to RedHawks fans.
“We realized our customer base is the same — we have the same audience,” Cross said.
That statement troubled Councilman Ed Shadid, who noted the ballpark is a family venue that draws a large number of children. Shadid said the deal is similar to Joe Camel cigarette advertising that sought to hook underage smokers in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I think this is reprehensible,” Shadid said. “Compulsive gambling in men tends to develop in early teenage years. Gambling addiction is a serious health concern for Oklahoma. Families in Oklahoma with members who are gambling addicts suffer higher proportions of domestic abuse and substance abuse.”
One city council member, however, defended the naming rights deal.
“I can remember the same unhappiness (some people had) when the Ford Center was named, when it was renamed the Chesapeake Energy Arena, when the Cox Convention Center had its name changed from the Myriad,” Councilman Pat Ryan said. “There's going to be somebody unhappy with all of that.”
Chickasaws, city are in water battle
The friction over the ballpark name coincides with a heated and public legal battle between the Chickasaw Nation and the City of Oklahoma City over water rights. Cross declined to comment when asked how the move to name the ballpark over a suburb and casino against the city's wishes might affect the relationship between the city and tribe.
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby echoed Cross' comments in a news release.
“The opportunity to expand our existing partnership with the RedHawks club was one we could not pass up,” Anoatubby said. “It always is an honor for the Chickasaw Nation to partner with another organization that takes great pride in its relationship with the Oklahoma City community, its patrons and its staff. Newcastle Field at Bricktown will continue to be a place where baseball fans, both young and old, can enjoy a game and make memories that will not soon be forgotten.