From Naming Rights to Sudanese Civil War in One Presentation

When I read that the Partnership Group-Sponsorship Specialists® would be presenting to council yesterday morning on the subject of naming rights my first thought was that Partnership Group-Sponsorship Specialists® is not a very good name.

The Calgary-based “group” consists of Brent Barootes, president and CEO, plus a collection of hired gun “advisors” drawn from a variety of industries. Barootes is a throw-back to another era. His bio says he’s a former night-club manager and radio ad salesman and a lifelong Rotarian and he kind of looks the part.

Partnership Group was contracted by CBRM on 31 July 2019 at a cost of $25,000 and I need to show you exactly what the RFP had to say about the company’s assignment or you’ll think I’m making it up:

An excerpt from an RFP

Source: RFP


“Center Center 200” is, of course, Centre 200, and while I am eternally sympathetic to people who make typos (I’d be struck by lightening if I weren’t), I have to ask how hard this would have been to have proofread? I mean, it’s an RFP about naming rights, you’d think you’d want to stick the landing on the names. Also, what if we just called it Center Center 200, like Circus Circus?

The RFP continues:

Advice may include preparation of a general package that would include the basic list of assets that a potential partner may expect to receive with such a naming right. The project would be under the direction of the Parks, Recreation, Buildings & Facilities Department.

What the municipality received from Partnership Group was something much more expansive—a CBRM “corporate sponsorship program review and policy strategy” that included a list of 1,800 “unique” CBRM assets just waiting to be named.

I had thought the handful of councilors in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting (the missing list included both the mayor and deputy mayor) had the actual report to consult but I’m told they all got the same slideshow from which I will do my best to work.


Let’s make a deal

Partnership Group begins with a very unsatisfactory definition of “sponsorship” as:

A cash and/or in-kind fee paid to the CBRM in return for the associated commercial potential to the CBRM. It is a business relationship.

So, an unnamed entity pays the CBRM and in return the CBRM gets “the associated commercial potential?” But, doesn’t the CBRM also get the money? What does the unnamed entity get? How is this a deal?

The report then goes on to explain what the Partnership Group was hired to do and despite anything you might have read in that RFP, what it was hired to do was conduct an “inventory asset valuation,” “develop naming rights and sponsorship policy” and “develop a strategy for monetizing the work.”

As noted, the group has identified “over 1,800 unique assets” from which can be extrapolated “thousands” of additional assets in CBRM, although to his credit, Barootes did not recommend we sell naming rights to all these assets, admitting we’d end up the municipal equivalent of this:


A photo of a European hockey player and a photo of the ads on a NASCAR vehicle.

European hockey player

Or this:

A photo of one side of a NASCAR vehicle.

NASCAR vehicle


And the citizens would revolt.

What he means by 1,800 assets that can be “extrapolated” into thousands is that within a facility like Center Center 200, say, every rink board is a “unique” asset. Interestingly, according to our previous contract with Irwin Simon’s Eagles, the municipality got nothing from rink board advertising although it did earn a percentage (not stated) on certain items, like illuminated signs and suites. (I know this because not one but two—count ’em—councilors asked the same question about it.)


Tiers of joy

Okay, so while the report identifies a potential $4.7 million in sponsorship money to be made, it says we should realistically (?) expect to earn $750,000 per year, most of it from four buildings, namely:

  • Centre 200
  • Cape Breton Rec Centre–County Arena
  • Miner’s Forum Recreational Centre
  • Emera Centre that you just took over [this is not a name suggestion but I think it should be]

If we want to go beyond those four properties, we could look at:

  • Atlantic Street Complex
  • Library
  • Wentworth Park [Don’t panic, he’s not recommending we rename the entire park, just individual features]
  • Major Festivals
  • Northside Pool

Emera has, of course, already bought the naming rights for the Emera Centre, which is why it’s called the Emera Centre. The arena’s deal, with a multi-national corporation whose top five senior executives received total compensation worth $16.5 million in 2022, is worth $250,000 over 20 years, and while I am also sympathetic to people who make mistakes when attempting extemporaneous math, Barootes’ calculation that that works out to $25,000 a year gave me yet more pause. (It happens at about the 1:00:04 minute mark of the video.) It’s actually $12,500 per year, compared to the $50,000 Barootes’ suggests it should be worth. Meaning the Emera Centre sold naming rights worth $1 million for $250,000.


Mind you, there’s no guarantee anyone would pay $50,000 to name a CBRM asset, which is a caveat you should just imagine I’ve inserted after every sum in this report.

The Partnership Group’s proposal is to divide the CBRM’s assets into “tiers” and price them accordingly:


Here’s their estimate as to how many partners CBRM will need at each tier to generate that $750,000:


In terms of approving a sponsorship deal, council will only be called upon for Tier 1, $50,000 decisions.

Tier 2 decisions would all be up to CAO Marie Walsh, rather than say, a committee, with say, citizen representatives.

Tier 3 decisions would be the responsibility of the director of recreation and people like C200 manager Paul MacDonald, while Tier 4 decisions would be made by “an internal sales person,” if CBRM hires one.

Barootes strongly suggests the CBRM contract an external company to handle most of its naming rights rather than trying to build internal capacity. (No time to explore this in full, but I watched an interesting interview with Mariana Mazzucato, a professor of Economics at the University College London, who says the consulting industry, by stymying the development of internal capacity, has “infantilized” that country’s government. Food for thought.)


Lindsay/Talisman/Repsol/MNP Centre

And now, I’m sorry, but we have to take a side trip into what was easily the most bizarre part of the presentation and if you think this is kind of a strange subject for an article on naming rights all I can say is—he brought it up.

It started out with a perfectly reasonable question from District 11 Councilor Darren O’Quinn, who asked why the new $2 million recreational complex in New Waterford was not referenced in the report (the answer was that it hadn’t been completed when the report was being done). O’Quinn, who’d been deeply involved with the project, then explained they’d named “everything they could” connected to this complex already, beginning with the overall facility, which is to be called the Gary MacDonald Recreational Sports Complex.

He then asked how the CBRM could contemplate selling naming rights to buildings and facilities that had already been named for beloved residents? Baroote’s answer was that you “consult the family” and possibly persuade them to give up the name [read: guilt trip them into giving up the name]. He told two Western anecdotes about this but for the sake of space, I’m just going to focus on the second, which involved Calgary’s Lindsay Park Sports Centre, opened in 1983 to host the Western Canada Summer Games.

Talisman Centre

In Barootes’ telling, the center was named for a local doctor who, in the 1960s, was all about preventative healthcare.

Except, the complex is actually named for the community in which it sits—Lindsay Park—which in turn got its name from one Dr. Neville Lindsay who once owned the ranchland under it. Lindsay arrived in Calgary in 1883 “on the first C.P.R. train carrying freight and construction materials” and died there in 1925 so was probably not particularly active in the ’60s. Maybe he had a doctor descendant who was, but the Centre was not called the Lindsay Centre, it was called the Lindsay Park Centre which suggests it was named for the community, not the man.

In 2002, Lindsay Park was officially renamed the Talisman Centre when Calgary-based Talisman Energy became the naming sponsor with a contribution of $10 million over 20 years.

Brent Baroote, CBRM council meeting, 25 April 2023.

As Barootes’ explained to council, Talisman, at the time:

…was having a few political and public relations issues, ironically in Rwanda, and the end result was that a few people had died at their [waves arms around] situation and their oil exploration and so they needed to do something back at home in Calgary, where their head office was, to tell everybody they were into health and wellness. So, they put their name on the building, all their employees got memberships for health and wellness…

First, that is a pretty cynical take on naming rights from the naming rights guy (although I’m not disagreeing with him).

Second, if you’re going to suddenly raise the specter of Canadian oil companies in Africa during a presentation on naming rights to an east coast Canadian municipality (and personally, I think you shouldn’t), you need to be sure you have your facts right.

Talisman had become involved in the oil business in Sudan in 1998, at a time when that country’s seemingly endless civil war had entered a “new and particularly vicious phase.” According to this 2000 paper on the subject by Chios Carmody, the violence was too much for Chevron, which pulled out and sold its Sudanese assets to a small Canadian oil company that was then acquired by Talisman:

As part of the purchase Talisman took over a 49,200sq. km. concession 700 kilometres south of Khartoum. Talisman decided to operate the concession with the help of Chinese, Malaysian and Sudanese partners through a Mauritiusregistered joint venture, Greater Nile Petroleum Operating Company (GNPOC), in which it [had] a 25 percent interest.

In October 1999, amid growing criticism of Talisman’s role in Sudan, the Canadian government sent John Harker (yes, that John Harker) to the country to assess Talisman’s operations. Harker’s inquiry, according to Chios Carmody, was:

…premised on the idea that there was a link between oil exploitation and human rights abuses, particularly slavery and slavelike practices, and that Canada was, in some sense, internationally responsible for the acts of its corporate “citizen”, Talisman Energy. Harker’s report concluded that GNPOC installations had been used to commit human rights violations, “that Sudan is a place of extraordinary suffering … and [that] the oil operations in which a Canadian company is involved add more suffering.”

Summarizing this dark episode as Talisman having “a few issues” in “Rwanda,” the solution to which was to slap its name on a Calgary recreation center is something you might get away with over drinks with your marketing buddies, but why would you just throw it out there during a public presentation to a municipal council? Wouldn’t you suspect somebody out there might be familiar with the actual history?

A Sudanese demonstrator casts his shadow onto a protest banner outside the Talisman Energy Annual General Meeting in Calgary, Wednesday May 1, 2002.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

As problematic as his mangled version of the story is, the moral Barootes draws from it may be even worse. The problem was not that Calgary sold naming rights to a company suspected of aiding and abetting genocide, the problem was that Calgary sold naming rights and:

…nobody told the Lindsay family about it…and I can assure you that that didn’t work out very well for anybody.

Except that the Centre remained the Talisman Centre until 2015, when Talisman was bought by Repsol, at which point it became the Repsol Centre which it remained until the contract expired in 2022. So presumably, the City earned its $10 million and Talisman got what it was after. A 2015 piece in the Calgary Herald about the approaching Repsol takeover and potential renaming doesn’t reference any controversy surrounding the first name change, noting only that it was “touted at the time as the largest amateur sport facility naming deal in Canadian history.”

Today the Talisman Centre is known as the MNP Community & Sport Centre.

So, the actual moral seems to be that you can sell naming rights to companies accused of human rights violations and it will work out just fine for all involved.