ELYRIA — The football field at Elyria’s new $14 million athletic complex has a Lorain-centric name even though an Elyria institution with strong ties to the district made an unsuccessful 11th hour attempt to place its name on the stadium instead.
Wednesday’s announcement that the field at the sports complex will carry the moniker Mercy Health Field at Ely Stadium raised questions as to how the Lorain hospital snagged the naming rights with University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center sitting right next door to an Elyria elementary school.
It turns out that quick action by the Lorain hospital to buy into the sponsorship gave it the upper hand even though UH had the same opportunity.
Elyria Schools spokeswoman Amy Higgins said UH has been, and will continue to be, a good partner with the schools.
“We enjoy a good relationship with UH,” Higgins said. “There is certainly nothing to indicate any issues with our past partnerships and ongoing relationship with UH.”
The partnership deal valued at $350,000 over 10 years gives Mercy Health exclusive naming rights to the new synthetic turf field within Ely Stadium.
“Mercy Health’s investment in the Elyria Schools supports the financial aspects of the construction project itself, but it also opens the door for the district and Mercy Health to explore future health care opportunities that benefit all students in the Elyria Schools,” Superintendent Tom Jama said Wednesday.
Ed Oley, Mercy Health’s senior vice president and chief executive officer, said the partnership deepens Mercy Health’s roots in Elyria and Lorain County while staying true to the hospital’s mission.
“Empowering youth to remain physically and mentally fit is part of our promise and this field represents that promise coming to life,” he said.
Sealing the deal with cake
Wednesday’s announcement, complete with cake and glossy photos of the Aug. 24 home game for the Mercy Health hospital executives in attendance, was a celebratory affair, marking the first major announcement of outside revenue attached to the stadium. The Elyria board hired Sponsor Burst, a Brunswick-based company, to raise funds; more announcements are hoped for the future.
The district going with Mercy Health instead of UH Elyria is not indicative of the relationship between Elyria and the hospital or an indication of UH Elyria’s commitment to the city, UH Elyria President Kristi Sink said in a statement.
“University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center and the Elyria City Schools have a strong legacy of working together to better our community,” she wrote in the email. “Our hospital has supported the school system in many ways, including a $200,000 donation that helped build the new high school. UH Elyria Medical Center and UH Sports Medicine Institute submitted a competitive proposal regarding the naming rights at Ely Stadium. Although our proposal was not selected, we look forward to continuing our support for the wellbeing of our community and the school system’s efforts to provide the finest education to students.”
Larry Jaeger, president of Sponsor Burst, said Mercy Health won out because it eagerly responded first to the idea of having its name on the stadium. The timeline between Sponsor Burst’s hire by the board in June and this week’s announcement included multiple attempts to get UH Elyria on board, he said.
“While Mercy’s main campus is in Lorain, they operate a cancer center and multiple facilities in Elyria,” Jaeger said Friday. “They want to do more for the city of Elyria and that was their intent, I believe, with this opportunity to pursue the naming rights partnership.”
Finding a partner willing to pay
Finding a company willing to pay thousand of dollars for naming rights is not easy, Jaeger said.
He said his company thoroughly researched Elyria’s market to identify main stakeholders, influencers and past and current business partners that work with the district. District officials also helped ensure local big names like Invacare Corp., Riddell and Ridge Tool Co. were included in any efforts.
On July 9, Jaeger said 24 information packages related to the naming rights proposal went to businesses, corporations, car dealerships and major institutions including Mercy Health and UH Elyria.
“We send by FedEx and address all opportunities directly to the organization’s CEO, in this case Kristi Sink,” he said. “We didn’t get an immediate response back from UH.”
Higgins said multiple attempts were made to follow up with Sink.
The hospital and district are not just partners, but neighbors that share a big piece of the Eastern Heights neighborhood with the dominance of the hospital and McKinley Elementary School on East River Street.
Now connected to the Cleveland health care conglomerate, UH Elyria historically was a ultra-local hospital with local leadership dating back decades. It was a streetcar accident in 1908 at the doors of the current Elyria High School that was the catalyst that created Elyria Memorial Hospital, the former name of UH Elyria. A historic plaque honoring that tragic start sits on the high school’s campus.
Higgins said the new partnership with Mercy Health broadens the partnership abilities of the district and students benefit from new opportunities.
“The board accepted the offer and quite frankly enthusiastically looks forward to partnering with Mercy as Mercy looks forward to partnering with the district,” she said.
Jaeger said Oley understood from the beginning that the district was looking for a financial commitment and those conversations started. That is not the UH system’s typical approach when working with school districts as it generally provides a physician at games in exchange for hospital signage around the school.
“Traditionally, it’s a barter and that is UH’s approach,” he said. “But schools are realizing that just like at the collegiate level, their Friday night games are worth money.”
Board president Kevin Brubaker said Friday that generating revenue is a big part of keeping a promise to Elyria voters.
“We are also trying to generate money by way of raising it,” he said. “The taxpayers, we did not fund Phase 2 of the stadium, which is the baseball fields, softball fields and north end of the complex. We have always stated we would fundraise for that.”
UH’s initial offer July 21 did not offer any money, Jaeger said.
At the same time, Mercy Health and Elyria Schools were in the process of negotiating a 10-year, $300,000 deal.
UH Elyria historically has staffed Elyria’s home football games with a physician. With a tentative deal on the table between the district and Lorain hospital, Elyria Athletic Director Heather Beck informed UH Elyria the doctor would not be needed, Jaeger said.
Moving forward with Mercy Health
A tentative deal is not a done deal, especially when working with a public entity like a school system, until board members vote openly in a public meeting.
So while Elyria Schools and Mercy Health shook hands on the initial naming rights deal, it was not official until Wednesday when the board met to vote. The details remained somewhat under the radar leading up to that vote.
However, Jaeger said Sink learned of the deal — likely after discovering the UH Elyria doctor would no longer be needed at games — and began reaching out to present a better offer. She pitched a 10-year, $350,000 deal, pledging to give the district $35,000 a year — $5,000 more annually over Mercy’s tentative offer of $30,000 a year.
“Our job is to maximize the revenue for the schools,” Jaeger said. “I then had multiple phone conversations with (Kristi) Sink, who was very apologetic that they may have been misrepresented in their interest in the naming rights at the stadium. They ultimately submitted another proposal.”
This put Jama, who worked out the final details with Sponsor Burst as to what to present to board members, in a position where he had two offers despite a handshake deal with Mercy Health and a Mercy Health doctor at the season home opener.
Mercy Health was given the opportunity to match UH Elyria’s offer and, when its officials did, a decision was made to honor the negotiations with Mercy Health and move forward.
“It is important, I think, to note that both entities were given a fair and equal shot at the naming rights as were several local car dealerships and corporations,” Jaeger said. “I feel 100 percent confident that we were fair. We want to make sure in a public entity like a school district that everyone gets a fair shot.”
Brubaker said ongoing conversations with Sink leading up to Wednesday’s vote spoke of future partnerships.
“I get where the criticism would come from. You have the longstanding, awesome University Hospitals systems in our city that is getting ready to do an $11 million to $12 million renovation,” Brubaker said. “I did talk to their CEO just prior to the board meeting and we had a very good conversation. I believe she understood where we were coming from. Was she disappointed? Yes, I can say that, but I did tell her that we are looking at other opportunities, other sponsorships, i.e. the gymnasium at the high school.”
Per the district’s contract with Sponsor Burst, the company makes 20 percent on the naming rights deal, or in this case $70,000 over the life of the agreement.
Higgins said the remaining $280,000 will go into the district’s general fund and will be allocated to the stadium project.