You have to feel sorry for the Arizona Cardinals. They spent nearly two decades playing football at Arizona State's Sun Devil Stadium. Now that the team has its own venue to call home, it gets tagged with another college moniker.

Apollo Group's (NASDAQ:APOL) University of Phoenix is paying $154.5 million to the NFL team in order to obtain stadium naming rights for the next 20 years. Despite its name, the University of Phoenix has a presence in several different states. However, although the breadth of its physical campuses is impressive, it is probably best known for its online campus, which has helped to fuel the popularity of Internet-based learning.

Yes, we can say "dot-com" and "higher learning" in the same sentence, and I kind of like the way that sounds.

A history of gridiron disappointment
Set aside any displeasure you may have with the practice of pricey naming rights in general. My point here is that the last time Internet stocks were major players in stadium deals, it proved to be a messy wipeout, as the companies were playing with IPO money instead of actual cash flow generation.

The dot-coms did know how to pick winners, though. The Baltimore Ravens won it all playing out of PSINet Stadium. The New England Patriots began their dynastic run a few years ago at CMGI Field.

PSINet, a provider of corporate Internet access, eventually filed for bankruptcy. CMGI (NASDAQ:CMGI) was able to back out of its deal when its market cap dwindled to little more than the price tag of the original nine-figure agreement.

In a move that thankfully never materialized, my hometown Miami Dolphins were a handshake away from handing over their stadium name to NetZero. With Miami's offense sluggish since Dan Marino hung up his cleats, can you imagine the taunting the team would get playing out of NetZero Field? ESPN lost a gold mine of "SportsCenter" shtick.

Internet companies weren't the only ones that anchored teams to corporate laggards. TWA and Adelphia also went kaput, despite the St. Louis Rams and Tennessee Titans, respectively, playing for it all in one of the tightest Super Bowl matches in history six seasons ago. The contrast of pigskin success against the backdrop of corporate failure has been rich. In a refreshing twist, it seems to be different this time.

The Internet strikes back
It's true that CMGI isn't the same hotbed of venture-capital buzz that it was in its heyday. However, it's still around. The model has changed. It's returned to its roots and become a force in supply-chain management services.

NetZero, now part of United Online (NASDAQ:UNTD) is doing even better. Despite the struggles at America Online and that company's fading dialup audience, United Online's Juno and NetZero access subsidiaries are humming along nicely. United has also been able to build up a portfolio of popular Web destinations like Classmates.com and permission-based marketing and rewards marketing specialist MyPoints.com.

Everyone ran for cover when the dot-com bubble burst, but nearly every survivor has been able to build something special out of the ashes. Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) may have been the poster child for the burst, yet it is consistently profitable these days. Even some companies that didn't seem to have much of a fighting chance, such as Drugstore.com (NASDAQ:DSCM), have gradually clawed their way back - Drugstore.com recently achieved its first quarter of positive EBITDA from operations. Yes, I hate the "adjusted EBITDA" tag as much as the next investor as a substitute for actual profitability, but at least the company keeps heading in the right direction.

So let's not rush to get cynical over Apollo's move to plaster its e-learning giant's name on a stadium. The stadium is already set to host the 2008 Super Bowl, and the area's warm climate makes it an easy sell for future NFL championships. Let's not forget the annual Fiesta Bowl, either.

More importantly, let's not compare Apollo's lofty expenditure on naming rights this week with that of past pretenders. This isn't a company that just whacked the IPO pinata, and suddenly has nothing better to do with its greenbacks. Apollo is the leader in for-profit education. It commands an $8.6 billion market cap, educating a nationwide class of more than 300,000 degree-seeking students.

The University of Phoenix is a real-world presence, and its University of Phoenix Online arm has the potential to grow even larger with naming-rights exposure. That is naturally a high-margin area just waiting to be expanded, and if Apollo gets to win the mindshare battle one Sunday afternoon at a time, the pass-happy Cardinals won't be the only ones gunning for the score.

Yes, the dot-com space has certainly evolved when a naming rights deal evokes chuckles of irony at the team's campus-friendly past, rather than laughter at the prospects of the naming company's future.

The Internet has arrived. Go long, and I'll try to hit you with a deep pass.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a football fan, and because he's stuck with Kurt Warner as his fantasy football QB, he hopes that he can hold off Matt Leinart for a few more weeks. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. T he Fool has a disclosure policy.