Jersey Sponsorship – Ruining the Sanctity of Sport?

Advertising and professional sports – the two go hand in hand, right? In today’s globalised world, it’s impossible to watch your favourite team on television or go to a live game without being bombarded by promotions for betting companies and alcohol manufacturers. Australian cricket fans will no doubt be familiar with the constant commercials for Bet365 and XXXX Gold that interrupt play during test matches. While the purists out there detest the increasing commercialisation of their favourite pastimes, the reality is that professional sports is a business. Where money can be made, it will be made.

Arguably the most profitable advertising strategy is the selling of advertising space on jerseys. For confirmation, one need only look at the $500 million brought in by the English Premier League through jersey sponsorship in 2017-2018 season. While most of the world’s top sporting leagues feature jersey advertising of some variation, a notable exception has been the United States’ ‘Big Four’ sporting leagues: Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA), who have resisted the trend to turn players into human billboards. The market for American Sports has long generated so much revenue that there has been no need for extra income. However, as player salaries continue to skyrocket, the pressure on franchise owners to earn more money will continue to increase.

The resistance started to crumble in 2016, when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that starting in the 2017-2018 season, teams would be able to sell ad space on their jerseys. While the designated 2.5 by 2.5 inch space above the left breast is quite small, it represents a massive shakeup for the world’s premier basketball competition, one that is likely to be followed by the other members of the ‘Big Four’.

With teams charging as much as $20 million for that small ad space, it comes as no surprise to see the NBA head in this direction. What is curious is why it’s taken so long to get to this point in the US, a place where stadiums are named after products widely removed from sporting events, like mattress companies. Sleep Train Arena doesn’t exactly have a great ring to it, does it? The reason for the reluctance for jersey advertising could be that the jersey reminds fans of a simpler time, a time when money wasn’t more important than the game itself. In today’s era of rapidly changing lineups, fans now feel a stronger connection to the tradition of the uniform than they do to whatever player is currently wearing it. This point was eloquently put in an episode of the hit 90s sitcom ‘Seinfeld’:

With frequently changing rosters, the jersey remains a symbol of continuity for dedicated fans. By plastering tacky ads and labels all over team jerseys, will that connection be lost? When the issue of jersey sponsorship was raised in the National Hockey League in 2015, Winnipeg Jets forward Blake Wheeler strongly expressed his opposition to the idea in this tweet:

Despite the outrage expressed by Wheeler and countless others, it’s more than likely that jersey sponsorship soon be the norm in America’s top sporting leagues. The NHL and NFL both already have sponsorship deals for practice jerseys. The NHL is currently looking the most likely to incorporate sponsors on game jerseys. Despite the historical significance of these uniforms, it’s hard to deny the enormous revenue opportunities for teams.

Executives of the other leagues will be encouraged that for the most part, fan complaints in the NBA have been minimal. Supporters are still attending games, suggesting that people aren’t immediately going to desert the sport over a small logo. The NBA has, however, made the smart decision not to make these jerseys available for sale to the general public. At present, fans are still able to purchase a Lebron James’ jersey without the Goodyear logo adorning the front of it.

Many teams have also decided to partner with locally-based companies. To name a few: the Atlanta Hawks, Boston Celtics, and Sacramento Kings have teamed up with Sharecare, General Electric, and Blue Diamond Almonds respectively. While knowing that they are supporting local organisations has eased the transition for supporters, the reality is that overseas companies will pay more for ad space. The Golden State Warriors’ association with Japanese tech company Rakuten is worth $20 million a season, close to double the second most profitable deal in the league. Sport is a global business, and with a huge presence in Asia, the NBA will likely soon follow the English Premier League, in which nine of the 20 teams advertise Asia-based companies across the chest of their jerseys. So, as ads begin to take up more and more real estate on beloved uniforms, how will supporters react?

While sports fans hold strong connections with their teams’ jerseys, and hate to see them tarnished by garish logos, their desires are secondary to the opportunity to make a profit. With the enormous potential for increased revenue, uniforms like this may not be too far off:

The reality is that advertising plays a huge role in professional sports. Love it or hate it, jersey sponsorship in the US is likely to continue to spread, and fans will learn to live with it. There isn’t going to be a mass exodus of supporters due to a few extra ads. Enthusiasts will still attend games and enjoy them as they always have, and franchise owners will continue to line their pockets as they always have.

In the immortal words of Cuba Gooding Jr in the 1996 film Jerry MaGuire, “Show me the money!”

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