United Center to keep name for another 20 years

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CHICAGO (AP) - All those blue United Center signs can stay right where they are. The home of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Blackhawks is going to keep its name for a long time.

United Airlines, the facility's two main tenants and United Center Joint Venture announced Wednesday that they had reached a 20-year extension for the naming rights for one of North America's largest arenas. A spokesman for the Blackhawks said the pact kicks in for the 2014-15 season.

"We're thrilled to have United Airlines on board for another 20 years," Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz said in a release. "We are proud of the partnership and what it will continue to mean to the United Center, from our fans and customers, to the positive economic role the United Center will continue to play in Chicago."

Under the new pact, Chicago-based United remains the official airline of the arena, Bulls and Blackhawks. It gets exclusivity in the airline category and logo rights for each of its three partners. The agreement also includes a commitment by each of the parties "to develop and support community outreach programs to benefit Chicago," while promising to provide more details on the initiatives next year.

There also will be upgrades for the United Center, which opened in 1994. The improvements include more LED boards and are expected to be in place by next spring.

"We are delighted to continue our partnership with one of the most recognizable sports and entertainment facilities in the world," United executive Jeff Foland said in a release "Our more than 14,000 Chicago-based co-workers are honored to have been a part of so many Bulls and Blackhawks championship moments and look forward to many more to come."

The market for naming rights has changed dramatically since the deal for the United Center was announced in 1992, which reportedly cost the airline an average of $1.8 million per year. The original agreement was set to expire in 2014.

The cost of the marquee sponsorship agreements have skyrocketed in recent years, and the airline business also has undergone significant changes since the first deal. The changes raised questions about the ability of the sides to find common ground.

Financial terms for the extension were not announced, but Eric Fernandez, a senior vice president at MediaLink, LLC, estimated the value was likely somewhere between $90 and $110 million.

"Overall I'd call it a win-win," said Fernandez, who was the executive director of sponsorships and events for AT&T for six years before joining his boutique consultancy firm in 2008. Fernandez played a key role in the agreements that cover AT&T Park in San Francisco and AT&T Center in San Antonio.

"The teams and building have continuity of the partnership, revenues more in line with market conditions and United gets to keep their name on a prime venue in a major market," Fernandez said in an email to The Associated Press.

Fernandez said the deal probably comes in under the market value, but it also means United Center Joint Venture gets to avoid what likely would be a difficult rebranding process.

According to the United Center, the 960,000 square-foot facility has hosted more than 40 million people since it opened 19 years ago. It holds more than 200 events each year.

It also was announced on Wednesday that the NCAA Division I men's hockey championship will be held at the United Center in 2017. It's the first time the Frozen Four has come to the arena.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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