Odd chapter of Conseco Fieldhouse coming to a close

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A strange chapter in the life of Conseco Fieldhouse is coming to a close. Officials for CNO Financial Group Inc., the company that holds naming rights for the 18,165-seat venue, confirmed to IBJ today they are making an announcement at 10:30 a.m. Thursday concerning its name.

CNO officials haven’t disclosed the new moniker, though at least two downtown hotels are using the name CNO Financial Fieldhouse in the lists of area attractions on their websites. Both say the venue was “recently renamed.”

But let’s back up a bit. In 1999, Carmel-based insurance company Conseco Inc. signed a $40 million, 20-year naming rights deal for the new home of the Indiana Pacers. The deal—which according to Pacers officials is “iron clad”—is good through the 2018-19 season.

Conseco in late 2002 went bankrupt and then raised itself from the ashes—minus a few key executives, including company co-founder Steve Hilbert, who helped craft the Fieldhouse deal.

In May 2010, Conseco changed its name to CNO Financial. The reasons given for the name change were as bizarre as the reason for not changing the name of the Fieldhouse, which gets plenty of press as one of the National Basketball Association’s finest venues.

Jim Prieur, the CEO of CNO at the time, took several shots at the Conseco name, telling IBJ in March, 2010 that the old company name had people asking, “What is a Conseco?”

“Conseco is sort of a funny name, anyway,” Prieur said, adding that it even led some to believe former professional baseball player Jose Canseco had some involvement with the company.

Few would argue that CNO Financial is a more descriptive moniker than Conseco, but the reference to Jose Canseco, a notorious figure at the center of Major League Baseball’s steroids scandal for a decade, was one of the strangest things emanating from company officials.

In December 2010, CNO spokesman Tony Zehnder said cost was among the factors that kept the company from changing the name of the venue to CNO Financial Fieldhouse. Based on its contract with the Pacers, CNO had the right to change the name but would be required to pay for signage and at least part of the marketing materials that were emblazed with the Conseco Fieldhouse name.

“We realized that changing all the signage would cost serious money,” Zehnder said. “We decided it was more important to change the marketing materials from inside the building to reflect our company’s name change.”

Zehnder said another consideration was continuity for the nationally known venue and downtown landmark.

Several sign manufacturers pegged the cost to change the venue’s signage at about $1 million or a little more. That doesn’t seem like a huge amount for a company of CNO’s size.

Because CNO is paying $2 million each year—and had eight years left on the deal at a cost of $16 million—it would seem a worthy investment. Sports marketers estimated the exposure from a single event such as the Cross Roads Classic college basketball game last weekend would be worth at least $150,000—if the company had its actual name on the building. The Cross Roads Classic was played before a sold-out audience and aired nationally on ESPN2.

Every Pacers home basketball game is televised regionally. Throw in the Big Ten men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and a handful of other well-attended annual events, and the exposure for the Fieldhouse is considerable.

“CNO not changing the name of the Fieldhouse is one of the silliest things I’ve ever heard,” Indianapolis-based Brand Acceleration CEO Jim Walton told IBJ last December. “Where’s the benefit for CNO in retaining the Conseco moniker? There is none. It makes you wonder what’s going on.”

As far as the Fieldhouse being a landmark, it still will be that, no matter what the sign on the roof says. And people come to expect these corporate name changes with modern sports venues. It comes with the territory in today’s business-minded sports world.

Seahawks Stadium, which was the original name of the stadium in Seattle in 2002 when it first opened, underwent a name change to Qwest Field in 2004. Now, it has changed again to CenturyLink Field. Enron Field in Houston became Minute Maid Field, and the CoreStates Center in Philadelphia became the First Union Center and then the Wachovia Center.

These venues and the names on them represent more than a landmark. They’re an investment.

It seems that CNO Financial officials finally concluded that if they have an investment it might as well pay some dividends.

That’s a solid strategy for an insurance and financial services firm.

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