NBA jerseys will become ad billboards next season; can other American major leagues be far behind?
Are you ready for a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet with the Steelmark logo on the right side and a Heinz Ketchup keystone on the left? How about a Philadelphia Eagles jersey with a big Lincoln Financial patch slapped across the front?
Think it can’t happen here? Think again. I think it’s inevitable.
It’s been going on in European professional sports for decades. The team name is not what you see on the front of a soccer or basketball jersey. It’s a sponsor’s logo.
Real Madrid players, including current 76ers’ point guard Sergio Rodriguez (13), celebrate during EuroLeague semifinal win in 2015.
Manchester United’s jerseys have a small club crest on the shoulder dwarfed by a giant Chevrolet logo on the chest. Man U gets $10 million annually for the courtesy. The Real Madrid basketball team about to play in the EuroLeague final four on Friday has their club badge hidden in a 2-inch patch on the right breast. What’s splashed across the front of their jersey in giant red letters is Teka – the name of a German kitchen and bathroom fixtures company.
Beginning this fall, major American major-league pro sports are officially headed in the same direction. And I don’t just mean the MLS which has already been there for years.
Very quietly last spring, the NBA board of governors approved a measure that allowed their 30 clubs to begin using regular-season game jerseys as advertiser billboards beginning next season. Soon after, exactly a year ago yesterday, the Philadelphia 76ers announced a deal for a reported $5 million to affix a 2 1/2-inch square patch ad from the ticket broker firm StubHub on the left front shoulder of their jerseys. The Cleveland Cavaliers last week announced they will sport the Goodyear winged-foot logo on their jerseys. All of this begins in October. It represents the first unabashed whoring out of uniforms among the major four pro American sports not involving the maker of the jerseys themselves.
The NBA and commissioner Adam Silver are calling this a 3-year provisional agreement. But once a revenue stream begins flowing into club coffers, it does not reverse. It will only increase.
If you don’t think the NBA clubs are excited about it, read this slab of corporate-speak gibberish trotted out by Sixers CEO Scott O’Neil:
“This marks another groundbreaking first for the Philadelphia 76ers and StubHub. Our brands are now inextricably linked as we create lifelong memories for our fans in Philadelphia and around the world.”
Wait a sec. Because of a StubHub patch?
Hal Greer in 1966.
See, my lifelong 76ers uniform memories are built around that great mod extended PHILA font and the 13-star circle logo that Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer wore. Or the round numeral 6 on Julius Erving’s first Philly jersey. Or even the cool blue alternate Sixers model that AI wore.
“Our partnership with StubHub continues to generate progressive and forward-thinking platforms created to improve the fan experience and advance our industry. The essence of our relationship with StubHub is our shared culture and ambition to innovate, which drives us to reimagine traditional partnership activation and continually ask, ‘what if’?”
Dr. J’s 1977 jersey.
Yeah, me too. Like, what if pro sports teams allowed fans just a deep breath every couple of minutes between sessions of jamming the feeding tube of promotional goo down their throats?
Look, nobody knows more intimately than reporters how the sausage is made in big-time college and pro sports. I know these games are not put on for our benefit. But could we reserve just a sliver of the experience as off-limits to revenue generation?
In American pro sports, that sanctuary has always been the uniform. While everything from stadium names to the seventh-inning stretch have been prostituted to corporate yield, at least the uniform – even with half a dozen variations of third-alternates and throwbacks and Sunday versions – remained virtually unsullied by sponsorship branding.
Those days are now officially numbered. And I don’t just mean in the NBA.
NFL clubs have already been desensitizing training camp patrons by sewing sponsor patches on practice jerseys. You think they aren’t progressing to the real thing on fall Sundays? Can it not be only a matter of time before NFL and MLB jerseys become NASCAR racing suits? Don’t kid yourselves.
Once this convention is entrenched in the pros, how long before the Power Five college athletic conferences figure out a way to rationalize advertising patches for auto parts chains and pizza franchises and drug companies on the uniforms their servants wear into battle? The NCAA has no purview over them now.
Go, health maintenance organization, go!
And this does not need to happen, not as it often does overseas.
Many of the European club teams (notwithstanding the massive Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A soccer and EuroLeague basketball behemoths) reside in small cities with antiquated arenas and stadiums. Many such pro teams don’t have nicknames at all; their very names are the sponsor’s product.
But they really need the revenue to survive and make a decent profit, not to mention payroll. Those sponsor-covered jerseys actually pay the bills.
This is not the lot of our American major-league franchises, owned by billionaire magnates who specialize in other people’s money and hold cities hostage for ever gaudier and more palatial stadiums and sweetheart land deals. What we have here is pure greed.
Yes, the jersey, that final unspoiled parkland in the American fan experience, worn proudly even as it fed the licensed merchandising trough, is about to be opened up for settlement by the branding suits.
Folks, get ready to become corporate billboards. Maybe you’ll be lucky enough to root for an antidepressant.
DAVID JONES: email@example.com