Should Muni’s vintage streetcars and iconic cable cars be open for sponsorship by corporations or other groups willing to pay for the privilege? One of the agency’s Board members has asked Executive Director Nat Ford to look into it, and he’s in the process of doing that now. Initial press coverage seemed skeptical, but Director Malcolm Heinicke says he’s just talking about discreet identification of a sponsor’s name on the vehicles.
Market Street Railway is all for Muni trying to raise more revenue, consistent with our mission to “preserve historic transit in San Francisco.” Part of that mission is making the vintage equipment seem truly special, which is why the streetcars don’t carry exterior advertising. (The cable cars have had exterior ads since the 1960s.) Discreet plaques on the cars might work, and tasteful but highly visible interior recognition on the cars, perhaps in the form of a sponsorship “car card” in the advertising racks, could be another option.
The bigger question is how much money could Muni reasonably expect to raise from such an effort? Based on our own experience, the answer is not very much, if any, after expenses are taken into account.
Most of the cable cars currently have sponsorship plaques on them. This dates back to the early 1980s when the system was rebuilt and then-Mayor Feinstein decided to raise some of the local share of the cost from businesses. Back then, the Mayor made personal and heartfelt pitches directly to CEOs, saying their support was essential to preserve this national historic landmark. She did well in that campaign, several million dollars worth, but the companies were responding to strong appeals directly from a strong mayor at a time when the cable car system was in a state of physical collapse. Also, there were a lot more large companies headquartered in San Francisco 25 years ago, and the economy was much better then than now.
Fundraising is time-consuming in any environment, especially this one. In evaluating this opportunity, it will be important for Muni to properly estimate the amount of staff time and other resources it would require to solicit and service these sponsorships. They shouldn’t underestimate those costs, because they can be considerable, especially if it’s not a Mayor’s pet project. And they should evaluate the market for such sponsorships before plunging in. One way to do that at no cost is simply to see if any companies come forward and express interest in a sponsorship over the next few weeks in response to the publicity already generated by the idea. Marketers are always looking for positive exposure, and if they think this would provide it, at least some should call to try to get in on the ground floor.