Washington ferries considers selling naming rights to fill budget holes

By Paul Queary Associated Press Writer
Wednesday October 03, 2001

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Imagine crossing Puget Sound aboard the ferry Microsoft, or hopping the Starbucks for a weekend in the San Juan Islands. Tight budgets have state officials looking at selling advertising — including naming rights — on Washington state’s fleet of ferries. 

The ferry system began exploring the idea this year as it came to grips with the loss of its share of a motor vehicle excise tax repealed last year. 

“We’re in a financial bind and we’ve got to look for creative ways to get out,” said Pat Patterson, director of public affairs for Washington State Ferries. “It goes from naming rights to restroom advertising.” 

While Patterson says renaming one of the 29 vessels would be a big step — perhaps a step outside the bounds of good taste — she’s not ruling anything out. 

“I do think that’s kind of an extreme example — unless of course Bill Gates wants a ferry named after him,” Patterson said. 

A Microsoft spokeswoman was carefully neutral. 

“We’ve not been approached,” said Stacy Drake from the company’s Redmond headquarters. ‘So without any details it’s hard to tell whether we’d be interested.” 

Starbucks was similarly noncommittal, even though the company’s green-and-white cups are a good match for the ferries’ hulls. 

“It’s too soon to say anything,” said Audrey Lincoff, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based coffee corporation. “But when you think about it it’s kind of a cool thing.” 

The ferries are bare of advertising now, with only a few racks of brochures inside. Their names honor everything from landlocked Eastern Washington cities (Wenatchee and Walla Walla) to American Indian tribes (Klickitat and Elwha). 

But repeal of the excise tax scuttled more than 20 percent of the system’s revenue, forcing fare hikes, route cuts, layoffs and a cash transfusion from the Legislature. 

So why not advertising? Even without plastering Starbucks’ appropriately nautical double-tailed mermaid on the side, the ferries have lots of space available in their corridors, cafeterias and restrooms. Cheery logos laminated to tabletops could greet bleary-eyed coffee drinkers. 

The brochure racks bring in $170,000 a year, Patterson said. A more aggressive campaign may make many hundreds of thousands. 

Patterson says several companies have expressed interest in buying access to a captive audience of the 26 million commuters and tourists the system carries each year, including Ackerley Group, a major player in the billboard industry. Patterson is fielding proposals and plans to bring a report to the state Legislature next year. 

On land, local transit districts already wrap their buses in advertising for everything from the beloved Seattle Mariners to local TV news personalities. Extending the idea raises the somewhat alarming prospect of a 20-foot image of a 6 o’clock anchor’s face cruising into Elliott Bay. 

“Right now all these options are open,” said state Rep. Beverly Woods, a Republican who represents Poulsbo, a ferry-dependent community across Puget Sound from Seattle. “Whatever we do needs to be in good taste. I don’t know if we’re going to go so far as naming rights.” 

The Mariners play in Safeco Field, a privilege for which Safeco Insurance paid a cool $40 million. The NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics defend the hardwood in Key Arena, named for Key Bank. King County is considering selling naming rights to some of its facilities, including the velodrome at Marymoor Park, to help offset its pending budget deficit. 

Aboard the ferries themselves, commuters don’t seem to mind the idea. “Ads are everywhere anyway on buses, signs and cars, why not on ferries?” Heather Hiles, 18, of Bremerton, told The Sun. 

But a word to the wise if that Starbucks logo shows up: The company’s named for a character in Moby Dick. And like almost everybody else in Ahab’s crew, he went down with the ship.