(HOUSTON) - When the Houston Astros open the 2002 regular season at home on April 2, Enron Corp. won't be invited to the party.
Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. announced Wednesday that the team has agreed to give Enron $2.1 million to sever its embarrassing connection to the bankrupt energy giant. The ballpark will enter its third season as ``Astros Field,'' and McLane said he hopes to find another buyer for naming rights within 60 days.
``We will be very selective,'' McLane said, noting that at least seven companies have approached the Astros about naming rights. ``We learned a lot from this experience.''
Enron's creditors, including huge banks owed billions of dollars, approved the deal late Monday. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Arthur Gonzalez has yet to agree to it.
``We are pleased to have resolved this issue with the Astros with a deal that is beneficial to all parties, including Enron's creditors and the city of Houston,'' Enron President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff McMahon said.
The Astros aren't alone in wanting to ditch a name that has become synonymous with corporate malfeasance. Any version of Enron that emerges from bankruptcy will have a different name as well, company officials say.
When Enron in 1999 pledged $100 million over 30 years to plaster the Astros' new ballpark with its name and logo, the company was on its way to being one of the top 10 of the Fortune 500.
The once mighty company plummeted into the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history amid allegations of accounting abuses last year.
``We thought we had the perfect sponsor in America,'' McLane said. ``We just need to put that behind us.''
Dean Bonham, whose Denver-based Bonham Group negotiates naming rights deals for venues and corporate sponsors, called Wednesday's deal ``the best investment the Astros have made since they signed Jeff Bagwell'' to a five-year, $85 million deal in December 2000.
``The biggest benefit is the separation _ a very visible and public separation _ from what is far and away the most negative image association we've ever seen in the business between a company and a team,'' Bonham said.
``If this had dragged out in the courts, the damage to the team could have been fairly significant,'' he said.
McLane said Enron's name, featured repeatedly in huge blue letters or with its logo in the center of a baseball diamond, will be removed or covered with tarps.
Removal costs are unknown, but officials wasted no time. Later Wednesday Enron references already had been removed from the Astros' Web site.
Enron was paid up for naming rights until its next annual payment of $3.65 million was due Aug. 31. The company also kept up on other financial obligations after filing for bankruptcy, spending $108,000 on a suite and $90,000 for 2002 season box tickets as required by the contract.
The suite will go back to the team. Enron will keep the tickets.
McLane declined to identify companies interested in buying naming rights to the ballpark except to say they were either based in or had a ``very strong presence'' in Houston.
Bonham said the ballpark is a plum for any corporation because it's one of the best in the country and the team delivered name recognition to Enron by making the playoffs in four of the last five years. It also will be host of the 2004 All-Star Game.
Bonham said a successor likely will offer a comparable deal.
``They will get a deal equal to or better than what they had with Enron. They have a demonstrated ability to be a good partner,'' he said.
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