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There’s no hotter name in politics right now than the Tea Party. But anyone seized with a desire for smaller government who visits teaparty.com won’t find angry activists in tricorn hats spouting Thomas Jefferson. Instead, they’ll land on the website of a Canadian rock band of the same name that pioneered a style of Middle Eastern fusion known as “Moroccan roll” and broke up six years ago. This causes endless confusion for the millions of people who Google “Tea Party” each month. It’s no picnic for the band members, either. “So much damage has been done to our name by the political movement that we’re considering selling,” says Stuart Chatwood, The Tea Party’s bassist.
He and his band mates may feel a little better about the rise of the right wing if they put the domain name up for auction. With so many Presidential candidates, political operatives, and interest groups vying to capitalize on the Tea Party brand, there could be a bidding war. “Last cycle, Barack Obama raised $500 million online,” says Warren Adelman, president of GoDaddy.com, the domain registrar and Web hosting company. “If you look at the money being talked about this time around—campaigns raising $1 billion—it’s easy to expect teaparty.com to go for well over $1 million.”
That would be a handsome reward for a name chosen largely on a whim when the group got together in 1990. “Tea Party was a euphemism the Beat poets used for getting high and writing poetry and vibing with each other,” Chatwood says. The band registered the site in 1993 and kept it through eight albums and several world tours. In 2005 the lead singer split (“creative differences”), and the site has mostly been dormant since.
Then last year the band started to receive an increasing number of offers to buy the domain, mostly from obscure political groups and investors. The site has a lot to offer: It appears high in Google’s (GOOG) rankings even though it is rarely updated. It’s the obvious destination for direct-navigation traffic—typing a URL directly into a browser’s address field—believed to constitute as much as 15 percent of all Net traffic. The site has what those in the industry call great “mindshare.”
A sum of $1 million would put the musicians in elite company. Only a few dozen domain names have sold for that much or more, including sex.com ($13 million), vodka.com ($3 million), and poker.com ($1 million). The key to a big payday is marketing and timing. “Domain names are Internet real estate,” says Marc Ostrofsky, author of Get Rich Click! and an entrepreneur who bought Business.com for $150,000 in 1995 and sold it four years later for $7.5 million. “A good way to think about them is like tenants in a shopping mall. You’ve got your anchor tenants like Business.com and mutualfunds.com, and then you’ve got seasonal guys who come and go like teaparty.com.” Ostrofsky cites the cautionary tale of birdflu.com, worth a fortune when fears of contagion peaked several years ago. The owner didn’t sell, and the value plummeted when public attention moved on.
Teaparty.com is probably approaching its maximum value. The good news for the band is that there is no shortage of potential suitors: the Republican Presidential candidates; conservative political action committees; a wealthy Tea Party backer (the Koch brothers, perhaps?); a mischievous Democratic group. “The timing of this sale couldn’t be more brilliant,” says Stephen K. Bannon, the former Goldman Sachs (GS) investment banker who directed a trilogy of films about the Tea Party (including this summer’s Sarah Palin biopic) and is considering acquiring teaparty.com. “It could cause a lot of trouble if it fell into the wrong hands.” And that’s just in the world of politics. “If you had guts and worked in the marketing department at Lipton Tea (UN),” Adelman suggests, “you could take advantage of the interest to drive a huge marketing campaign.”
Aware that opportunity is fleeting, the band is mulling whether to sell, rent, or partner with someone to develop teaparty.com. One factor complicating the decision: The Tea Party temporarily reunited for a successful 11-city tour this past summer. In February they’ll kick off another run in Australia. “These musicians have a great opportunity to cash out,” Adelman says. “And if they ever decide to reunite for good, they can always just mildly alter their domain name—and enjoy their profits in the meantime.”
The band members also are trying to figure out how much their own politics should factor into the decision. “We’ve considered lending the name to Stephen Colbert or Jon Stewart to have them dispel some of the stuff that the Tea Party says,” says Chatwood. “As Canadians we’re somewhat sensitive to all the criticism of socialized medicine.” An ideal outcome, he suggests, would be for George Soros or Arianna Huffington to swoop in with a strong offer. But it seems likelier that the top bidders will be looking to develop an invaluable fundraising portal for a Republican candidate or political group. Nothing has been ruled out. “We’ve got families,” Chatwood says.
The bottom line: Interest in teaparty.com is intense now but could plummet if the domain’s owners hang on too long. Cautionary tale: birdflu.com.