CU at the Game

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Many credit unions are looking beyond their traditional sponsors or fields of membership to their communities in an effort to attract new members.

As a result, these CUs have been put in the unfamiliar position of selling themselves to an audience that does not know them. In an effort to earn name recognition, two Los Angeles-area credit unions have gone to bat with minor league baseball teams in San Bernardino and Lancaster, Calif. respectively.

In 2002, San Bernardino-based Arrowhead Credit Union signed a 10-year stadium naming rights agreement with the Inland Empire 66ers. Earlier this year, First City CU, which is headquartered in downtown Los Angeles, attempted to increase its visibility in the high desert area in north Los Angeles County known as Antelope Valley by becoming an advertising sponsor of the Lancaster Jethawks.

The Inland Empire 66ers are the single-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, while the Jethawks are the single-A club for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The 66ers and Jethawks compete in the venerable California League, which includes teams based in Stockton, Visalia, San Jose and Rancho Cucamonga.

In recent years, numerous corporations have anted up big money for the privilege of naming sports stadiums and arenas after themselves. The result: millions of dollars in "free" advertising as the companies' names are mentioned on television, radio and in print. For example, the 2002 World Series between the Anaheim Angels and San Francisco Giants was contested in stadiums known as Edison International Field and Pacific Bell Park.

Arrowhead CU which has $750 million in assets and 135,000 members does not have the marketing budget of the companies backing major league parks, but it made a splash in its hometown when it became the first stadium naming rights sponsor in California League history. In January 2002, the credit union agreed to pay $750,000 over 10 years in return for changing the name of stadium in San Bernardino from "The Ranch" to "Arrowhead Credit Union Park."

People are eligible to join Arrowhead CU if they live or work in San Bernardino or Riverside Counties, are a student, alumni or employee of Cal State University San Bernardino, or are a county or state employee. Jane Ronnfeldt, the CU's senior vice president of marketing and public relations, said the goal of the naming rights deal was to build awareness of the credit union's name in the area.

"Minor league baseball is a positive thing in the community that a company can put its name on. Going to the stadium for a minor league game is much more than just a baseball game, it is an evening of family entertainment," she said.

The first season-and-a-half of the naming rights deal has been a success, Ronnfeldt asserted. She said nearly every story about the team in the local media mentions the stadium by name, employees in the park have the credit union's name on their t-shirts, and every printed item serves as an advertisement. She cautioned, however, that it is nearly impossible for Arrowhead CU to quantify the effect of this exposure.

"This is strictly a public relations event, and it is difficult to measure public relations efforts," she said. "But we do feel we are building brand awareness by having a building with our name on it."

Other Marketing Opportunities

In addition to its name on the marquee, Arrowhead also has the right to set up a booth at all 64 of the 66ers' home games to sign up new members, plus it has a 21-person skybox available for each game.

Ronnfeldt said the CU has not exercised its right to set up the booth due to staffing and logistical concerns, but the skybox has proved popular. "This is a minor league park, so the box is not that close to the sky. But we use it to host community groups and business clients. It has worked out really well."

Until last year, First City Credit Union was Credit Union No. 11 for Los Angeles County employees. It served the LA County Sheriff's Department and the Department of Social Services. In the summer of 2002, it added several community charters, among which was the Antelope Valley, which includes the fast-growing cities of Palmdale and Lancaster.

Tom Thompson, First City's director of corporate communications, said the $293-million CU has taken several steps to get involved in the area since it changed from a closedmembership credit union to a community charter. These include advertisements in the local newspaper and sponsorships of Little League teams.

Earlier this year, the credit union paid $4,500 to become a sponsor of the Lancaster Jethawks. The agreement includes an outfield billboard at the stadium, advertising on radio broadcasts of all 140 home and away games and the right to set up a booth at five home games.

"We have a focus on community development, and we do it in lots of different ways," explained Thompson. "We want to get our name out there any way we can, and this is a cost-effective way the cost is not much compared to what we get."

Thompson said the Antelope Valley is somewhat geographically isolated from the rest of Los Angeles County, so its residents are very community oriented. He said the sponsorship of the local minor league team is a good way for the CU to show "allegiance" to the area.

An Assist From The Team

"The Jethawks are great to deal with. They are really nice people," he said. "They helped us set up our radio spots by telling us what Antelope Valley residents are interested in. They helped us design our billboard to make sure it stands out."

The credit union has yet to set up a booth to talk to prospective members, which Thompson described as a future challenge. First City also is looking into sponsoring a stadium giveaway night, in which an item with the CU's name on it will be given to fans in attendance at a game.

Like Arrowhead CU's Ronnfeldt, Thompson said it is difficult at best to measure the specific effects First City's sponsorship of the Jethawks will have. "We don't expect tangible results because you just can't expect that," he said. "We have seen membership growth in the Antelope Valley, but we can't tie that to any one thing."

Asked if she had any advice for First City, Ronnfeldt said the 2002 season the first year Arrowhead held naming rights was a lot of work. "There were many things to do to get organized that I've never done before, such as trying to figure out how to schedule usage of the box, giving community tickets away and more. It took time to figure it out," she said. "This year has been much more fun and not so time-consuming."

"All in all, the naming rights deal has been great," she continued. "It is a nice ballpark, and attendance is growing. It is a good thing and I'm glad we are part of it."

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