At the U, a banking change has big impact on the football stadium

By Mike Kaszuba

Five years ago, the University of Minnesota announced a new deal with TCF Bank, the local banking institution that held the naming rights to the school’s football stadium.

While the complicated agreement had several layers, the school said it had given TCF Bank the option to extend its naming rights deal to at least 2040 without a price increase – meaning the bank’s annual $1.36 million payment to the school would be extended by 10 additional years. In an internal document, the school touted the new deal as “one of the most lucrative stadium naming agreements in the United States.”

But new records obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a nonprofit based in Saint Paul, show that things dramatically changed in September of 2021.

In a move that appeared to surprise university officials, TCF Bank – now known as Huntington Bank following a merger announced in 2020 – decided not to sign the 10-year extension. The move not only cost the school $13.6 million in annual naming rights payments, but the bank also cancelled a related pledge to pay an additional $4 million to the school.

In addition, the documents showed that the relationship between the school and the bank substantially changed after the bank merger. The merger replaced TCF Bank, a longtime Minnesota banking institution, with Huntington Bank, which is based in Columbus, Ohio and has more than 1,100 branches in 12 states.

Huntington Bank declines to extend naming rights

“In our conversation on Sept. 8, you indicated that Huntington Bank is electing not to extend the stadium naming rights and the Naming Agreement will terminate in 2031,” Dusty Clements, a deputy athletic director at the school, wrote in a September 29, 2021 email. “To dispel any possible confusion in the future, we would appreciate [an] email confirmation of this election at your earliest convenience.”

“We also discussed that this information will become public given the profile and high visibility of the naming” rights, Clements added.

In the same email, Clements reminded a bank official that the school’s board of regents had approved changing the name of the stadium to Huntington Bank in June 2021 – just three months before the bank was now telling the school it was no longer interested in the naming rights extension.

Three weeks later, in mid-October 2021, a Huntington Bank official confirmed that the bank no longer was interested in an extension.

“Huntington did not exercise its option to extend the Naming Agreement. The Naming Agreement will expire in 2031,” Michael Jones, a bank official, wrote to the school. “This is in no way a reflection of our commitment to partnering with the University of Minnesota.”

The bank’s willingness to exercise the option, according to the documents, appeared to be something school officials were counting on. TCF Bank was to originally exercise its option in September 2020 – before the merger with Huntington Bank was announced – but a document showed that the bank was given a one-year extension by the school because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it came time for the option to be signed in September 2021, the bank let the deadline come and go without signing it. Huntington Bank officials did not respond to requests by PRM to explain why they had not exercised the option.

Relationship between U, bank evolves

Documents indicate that the university’s new partnership with Huntington Bank had become awkward before the bank decided against the naming rights extension.

As the school formally considered changing the stadium name in June 2021, one University of Minnesota official wrote that the school’s Board of Regents was considering delaying its vote because they were having trouble reaching officials at Huntington Bank.

“The University’s former contacts at TCF Bank are no longer with the company and it’s taking time to connect with new individuals in Ohio,” Brian Steeves, the Board of Regents’ secretary, wrote in an email.

After the school’s Board of Regents voted for the name change to the stadium last June, the school’s athletic director welcomed Huntington Bank.

“We are excited to partner with Huntington Bank and are excited to play in Huntington Bank Stadium this season and beyond,” said Mark Coyle, the athletic director. “We look forward to Huntington’s growing presence in the Twin Cities and across the region and are thrilled to open the 2021 football season in Huntington Bank Stadium.”

An announcement accompanying Coyle’s remarks stated that “driven by its purpose to make lives better, Huntington has earned a reputation for strong community involvement and will build on TCF’s deep history with the University of Minnesota.”

School documents also showed that, in changing the stadium sponsor from TCF Bank to Huntington Bank, a new logo was jointly created by the school’s athletic department, Huntington Bank, and other school officials. Matt Kramer, the school’s vice president for university relations, said at the time of the stadium name change that the new logo “is consistent with our branding standards.”

But the new logo had a noteworthy look: It featured Huntington Bank’s green color scheme as opposed to the school’s traditional maroon and gold colors.

Still, the new logo was deemed appropriate.

“We wanted to be sure that whatever we introduced respected the rich history and pride that the community has in Golden Gopher football,” a “design rationale” for the new logo explained.

“Combining those elements with the Huntington brandmark and colors, we present a logo that can represent this impressive facility for years to come,” it added.

The new logo proposal for Huntington Bank even featured napkins with the bank’s new stadium logo.

Back in 2017, when the school announced that it was strengthening its relationship with TCF Bank, there had been similar optimism. As part of an agreement, the school had announced that TCF Bank would give it $8 million for an “athletes village” on campus and the bank would in return get enhancements to its original 2006 naming rights agreement for the football stadium. (The stadium opened in September 2009).

The bank would get more logos on the football field, and the bank’s minimum percentage of advertising time could increase to 17 percent (from 8.5 percent) of the “total message time” on the stadium’s digital boards. If the bank agreed to the 10-year extension, the bank’s use of suites at the stadium would also expand – to include not just football games, but all stadium events.

In addition, the new agreement would prohibit any other financial services company – other than TCF Bank – from having “a staffed presence at the stadium.”

For its part, the school would have a revised naming rights agreement that would give it $43.5 million over the overall length of the agreement. But under the 2017 agreement, the bank’s annual payment would be reduced by $69,000 a year – to $1.36 million. Then-school president Eric Kaler, in an internal document, called it a “modest reduction” that would likely be offset by a debt refinancing.

Kaler meanwhile added that the new overall agreement had achieved the school’s goal of “significant financial support for the Athletes Village project in exchange for placing the name of our stadium sponsor on the playing field surface.”

The 2017 revisions enhanced a relationship with TCF Bank that had already given the bank a ubiquitous presence on campus.

The original 2006 agreement had given the bank exclusive access to the names and addresses of 236,300 alumni and football season ticket holders, and obligated the school to make the head football coach and the school’s “Spirit Squad” or Goldy Gopher mascot available for free to TCF Bank for appearances. The agreement also had the school pay the expenses for the bank to fly four people to one “away” Gophers football game a year.

Just as importantly, the original $35 million agreement allowed TCF Bank to solidify its position as the dominant banking institution on campus, and to potentially push two rivals – US Bank and Chase Manhattan Bank USA – out of key campus locations.

The original agreement – which marked the first time a Big 10 football stadium had a corporate name – started a larger discussion about whether it was an appropriate move. Then-State Senator Larry Pogemiller, a Minneapolis DFLer, opposed the agreement. “It’s clear the market value of a land-grant university has been put up for sale,” he said.

Other naming rights deals inked

The school has since signed other naming rights deals. In 2017, the school announced that its on-campus hockey arena would be known as the “3M Arena at Mariucci.” Three years before, the school announced that Land O’Lakes would be given a naming rights deal at a new “center for excellence” at the Athletes Village as part of a $25 million donation to the school.

School officials appeared confident that the 2017 revision regarding the football stadium would provide the school with more revenue – although there were some concerns whether allowing TCF Bank to extend the naming rights agreement through the 2030s without a price increase might give the bank too good a deal.

“Given the proposal does not envision a tick-up in the installment payment during the 2030’s, the tough question is whether we are willing to ‘sell the call option’ to TCF Bank and lock in the $1.36M/ yr rate,” an internal school financial analysis memo stated.

The analysis document also posed the question of whether the revised agreement was a better deal overall for the school. “Unequivocally, YES,” it added.

The analysis concluded that it could not ascertain how much the deal was worth to TCF Bank – or Huntington Bank. “No idea,” the memo stated. However, it also added: “We would have to be quite bullish [in] order to justify rejecting TCF’s proposal and rolling the dice with a new prospective partner down the road.”