Wild Things ballpark needs a new name, now that Consol is moving on

The Consol suite at Consol Energy Park in Washington County has a Consol color scheme — red, white, and black — a Consol clock, Consol-engraved bats, a map of the U.S. drawn from photos of Consol employees, and 84 baseballs framed under Consol’s logo.

Redecorating will be a substantive endeavor when the ballpark finds a new namesake after Cecil-based Consol Energy Inc. decided it will not renew its 10-year naming rights deal that expires Jan. 1, 2017.

The value of the original deal in 2007 was not disclosed. According to Eric Smallwood, managing partner with Apex Marketing Group in Detroit, who was hired to find a new naming partner for the venue, the annual payment was below $500,000.

The ballpark is home to the Washington Wild Things, a baseball team in the Frontier League, and to the Pennsylvania Rebellion, a women’s fast pitch softball team.

Consol’s stock and the Wild Things have been on a similar trajectory since the naming rights deal was inked.

The baseball team had six winning seasons under its belt by 2008 and Consol’s stock price reached an all-time high that year of $111.95 per share. Since then, both the team and the company have suffered.

Last year was the first respite the Wild Things had from a five-year losing streak, but the team had another tough season this year. Consol, after reimagining itself as an oil and gas company with coal assets, saw its stock wobble in the intervening years and plunge to a floor of $6.66 on Halloween eve, a 13-year low.

The company declined to say why it chose not to renew the partnership, but Consol spokesman Brian Aiello said, “It’s been a great 10-year run.”

Sticking with the Penguins deal

Meanwhile, the company’s higher profile naming rights deal is still in place.

Two years after putting its name on the Washington County ballpark, Consol signed a 21-year deal with the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team that is estimated to run several million dollars a year.

“That was a strategic decision to position our 150-year-old company with deep local roots alongside the other major brands in the broader region for the long term,” said Mr. Aiello.

Penguins spokesman Tom McMillan, who said the organization typically doesn’t discuss contracts that it has with its partners, said there have been no discussions with Consol about cutting short the deal for naming rights.

The naming rights push was part of a larger public relations campaign to help Consol rebrand itself in the region. The company, known for mining coal, had passed the century mark and most of its workers were within a decade of retirement.

“We were starting to talk internally about ways to raise the visibility of the company, improve the brand image and, in doing so, recruit workers,” said Tom Hoffman, Consol’s former vice president of external affairs who retired in 2009.

“The Wild Things were sort of new and hot in Washington County,” he said.

At the time, Consol’s Cecil-based headquarters was under construction, and Washington County housed many of its employees and energy assets. To recruit miners, the company had to endear itself to the local population and make them feel that their work would be seen as important in the community.

“The ad campaign was not national — it was decidedly regional,” Mr. Hoffman said. “We didn’t care whether people knew our name in Seattle.”

The campaign ran through 2009, when the company’s priorities started to shift towards oil and gas exploration and production, a business that requires far fewer employees. In 2013, Consol sold more than half of its coal portfolio to Ohio-based Murray Energy Inc.

“We knew, without knowing”

In the meantime, the development of shale gas across the U.S., but particularly in the Marcellus Shale, has created a glut of the fuel, plunging prices and impacting producers’ earnings. There is a coal glut as well, although it is fueled more by regulatory pressures and coal-to-gas switching in the electric sector.

Over the past several years, Consol has had multiple rounds of layoffs and company leaders have emphasized across-the-board cost-cutting efforts to weather the downturn in both coal and natural gas.

“We watched what’s going on in their industry,” said Stu Williams, co-owner of the Washington County ballpark. “We knew, without knowing, some time ago” that the company wouldn’t renew its naming rights contract.

Mr. Williams said Consol was a terrific partner. “I would have done just about anything to keep them,” he said.

The ballpark has 3,200 seats for games but can expand to accommodate 11,000 for concerts and political events. It has hosted bull riding and professional wrestling, as well as Bob Dylan and Sarah Palin.

Its visibility — a stones-throw away from Interstate 70 — is a competitive advantage, Mr. Smallwood said.

He’s put together a list of 100 companies that will get the pitch to be the ballpark’s new namesake. Less than 15 percent are energy companies, despite Washington County’s self-branding as the Energy Capital of the East.

Low commodity prices have spread the pain in the industry. “That’s why we’re not putting all of our eggs in the energy basket,” he said.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.

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