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Charity becomes name of the game

Businessman gives Dana-Farber rights to Gillette facility

When the New England Patriots decided to sell the naming rights to their indoor practice facility earlier this summer, team executives approached a wealthy businessman, Jack Blais, to see if he wanted to name it for his family. Blais put up more than $15 million for the deal -- but instead of keeping it for himself, he plans to disclose today that he has donated the naming rights to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The unusual 10-year deal will give Dana-Farber much-needed national visibility, executives said. The Patriots will let the cancer institute use Gillette Stadium for events, and the team kicked in hundreds of tickets that Dana-Farber can use for patients and to court potential donors. Dana-Farber is well-known in New England, but less known across the country.

''We'll have our name out there in front of the nation," said Dr. Edward J. Benz Jr., Dana-Farber's president.

The newly renamed Dana-Farber Field House will get immediate exposure when Gillette Stadium hosts tryouts for the reality television show ''American Idol" this month, which will take place in both the stadium and the practice facility next to it. The practice facility also is home to trade shows and other events, and the Patriots hold corporate tailgates there before games.

Blais's gift comes 15 years after his uncle, William Blais, was diagnosed with cancer at the base of his tongue. Doctors told him he would die. But Jack Blais took his uncle to Dana-Farber, where doctors treated the cancer and prevented it from coming back.

William Blais took his nephew to Red Sox games, introduced him to water skiing, and paid him $5 when he earned good grades. As an adult, Blais drove his uncle to most of his Dana-Farber appointments. His uncle died of pneumonia at age 82, an illness unrelated to his cancer.

In the years since, Blais has become one of Dana-Farber's all-time biggest donors. Even before the naming-rights deal, he and his wife, Shelley Blais, donated about $25 million to the institute. Separately, the couple donated $21 million to the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester in 2001, then the largest donation in the school's history.

''I just pray in my lifetime that we can find a cure, I really do," Blais said.

Blais made most of his money in optics. He helped found about 15 companies, sold five, and still owns 10. In 2000, Corning Inc. paid $2.1 billion to acquire NetOptix Corp., a company Blais cofounded. He and his wife now live in Fort Myers, Fla., and keep a home in Framingham.

Robert Kraft, the team's owner, said the Patriots could have struck a more lucrative sponsorship deal if they sold naming rights to a corporation, but they decided it would be far better to help Dana-Farber.

''It wasn't about going after the last dollar here," Kraft said. ''This is an opportunity to connect a couple of things we really loved. The branding became more important than the financial return."

As part of their package, Dana-Farber also gets tailgate passes and travel with the team.

Though it is not common for nonprofits such as Dana-Farber to get naming-rights deals, it has been known to happen: In Kansas City, Yellow Transportation and Sprint plan to give the local United Way a title sponsorship of a Nascar Busch Series race at Kansas Speedway later this year. The event will be called the ''United Way 300 Presented by Yellow Transportation and Sprint.

The decision to name the Patriots' field house follows the trend in sports naming rights to allow sponsors to name areas inside the stadium, in addition to the stadium itself. At Gillette Stadium, Fidelity Investments has purchased naming rights to the ''clubhouse," or premium seating area.

The Red Sox, unwilling to sell naming rights to Fenway Park, instead have sold naming rights deals inside the ballpark. In the most recent of these deals, EMC Corp. said it would rename a portion of the .406 Club the EMC Club, after the Sox renovate the luxury seating area and knock down its glass wall

These deals are attractive because they give sponsors access to wealthy business executives who patronize the premium seating areas at stadiums, said William Chipps, senior editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter that tracks corporate sponsorships.

He said such agreements are becoming more common, but they have not yet reached an upper limit. ''There's a saturation point for sure, but I can't say what that is," he said. ''If every single seat has a corporate name tag, it'd be a little much."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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