On Thursday, the NBA announced a proposal that would place advertising on players’ jerseys starting in 2013. If officially approved in September, expect the other three North American leagues to be close behind.
It’s hard to think of anything popular that isn’t closely linked to a major advertiser or corporate sponsor. But for the most part, American professional sports teams have kept their distance. Yes, individual athletes have shoe contracts, stadiums are named after fast-food chains, and some teams have official puddings. (Google “Kozy Shack” and “New York Mets.”) But unlike, say, Nascar drivers or golfers, few major sports teams have closely associated themselves with a single advertiser, and for the most part they’ve considered player uniforms in particular as sacrosanct. Now, it looks like that will be changing.
NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver announced last week that there was virtually unanimous support by the NBA Board of Governors for bringing ad spaces to NBA jerseys in the form of a 2.5-inch-by-2.5-inch patch on each jersey’s left shoulder (where the NBA logo currently sits) featuring company names and logos.
Silver said the patches could bring in as much as $100 million in revenue for the NBA, which would be split 50/50 between players and owners. That kind of revenue falls under “basketball-related income” as part of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Forbes broke down the numbers of each patch and found that with 450 players in the league, each patch would generate about $222,222 for an entire 82-game season and cost the advertiser $2,710 per player, per game. According to Forbes’ numbers, that’s $677.50 per square inch per game.
This has been coming for a while. Several stories in March and April reported that the NBA was considering the idea. But while the move would generate millions for the NBA, won’t it generate distaste from fans?
“Personally, I’m upset about it,” says ESPN.com’s uniform columnist Paul Lukas. “But I think the saddest thing about it is that most fans won’t be upset about it. Not that some of them won’t be outraged. But for the most part, I think fans will just throw up their hands and say, ‘What are you going to do?’”
Lukas argues that unlike individual sports like auto racing or golf (which are lousy with corporate sponsorships), team sports are different. “Team sports have a uniform that is a brand in and of itself,” says Lukas. “The players come and go. They retire. They get injured, but we keep rooting for the jersey. That’s what makes some people uncomfortable. It’s competing with that bond. There’s no other form of brand loyalty like the kind of brand loyalty you see with a team.”
In fact, let’s all bow down to that great sage Jerry Seinfeld, who famously noted that we’re all essentially rooting for laundry.
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Still, other team sports sport ads on team uniforms. The WNBA has had them for a while, and European soccer club kits are plastered with ads. But Lukas responds that soccer teams have ads largely because there aren’t commercials during matches.
If the proposal gets passed, it’s likely that big market teams will make much more money than others. The Los Angeles Lakers are almost certainly going to be able to command a higher price from advertisers than the Charlotte Bobcats, only making the rich teams richer and possibly putting more financial pressure on small-market teams.
Guidelines for jersey ad spaces are likely to be approved in September. It’s a significant move for the NBA. But Lukas says it’s more significant for what’s likely to follow.
“This softens up the public and lowers the psychological barrier for the other leagues to do it,” Lukas says. “It doesn’t just make it easier for the other leagues to do this. It almost becomes necessary.”