Meet the McDonald’s Mets?

The push to sell uniform ads.
 
What will happen if U.S. sports teams start allowing jersey ads? Luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, and Gucci will jump at the opportunity to design basketball uniforms. Team colors will be replaced by brand colors, and logos will be removed in favor of the designers’ signature patterns. Swag bags will be handed out to courtside seats. Illustrations by Mark Pernice.
 

American culture is routinely derided as being overly commercial, overly capitalistic. But there’s one potentially lucrative realm that Americans have consistently declined to exploit commercially, even as the rest of the world has done so: Our professional sports teams do not carry advertising or sponsorships on their uniforms.

To be sure, virtually every other aspect of the American sporting experience is now rife with advertising, from stadiums named after corporations (Minute Maid Park, the FedEx Forum, and so on) to the seemingly endless parade of sponsored game segments during TV and radio broadcasts (“Let’s check out the Verizon starting lineup…”). But the uniforms of the major-level North American professional sports leagues—the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, and Major League Baseball, collectively known as the Big Four—remain advertising-free zones.

That stands in stark contrast to professional sports uniforms throughout the rest of the world. Japanese and South American baseball, European hockey, Australian football, the international soccer, cricket, and rugby circuits—all feature various forms of uniform ads, ranging from small sleeve patches to garish multi-ad treatments that reduce the players to little more than billboards.

(Yes, American golfers, tennis players, NASCAR racers, and boxers wear advertising on their togs. But that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, because those athletes compete in individual sports, not on teams where every player is under the larger visual umbrella of a uniform.)

But with players’ salaries continuing to increase while a stagnant economy puts a chokehold on traditional revenue streams, various Big Four team owners and league officials have signaled that American sports uniforms may not remain ad-free much longer. As this issue went to press, the NBA was planning to discuss and possibly vote on the issue during its Board of Governors meeting in April.

But even if the NBA opts to table the issue for now, uniform advertising is already lapping at the shores of the American sports world. Minor-league hockey jerseys now carry ad patches, as do NFL and NBA practice jerseys. In addition, the Women’s National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer (neither of which has the popularity or clout of the Big Four) use full-blown sponsorships in which a corporate logo functions as the jersey’s chest insignia, with the team identity relegated to subordinate status. Each of these developments has chipped away at the once-impregnable wall separating, say, a Chicago Cubs uniform and a MasterCard patch.

U.S. franchises will take a page from Korean Professional Baseball, where teams are owned by large corporations and pay homage to the fact in their names—the Samsung Lions, the Lotte Giants. To minimize clutter and maximize loyalty, corporate sponsors will merge their branding with the logos of the teams they sponsor. Hitters may be asked to gain belly weight to maximize uniform canvas area.
 
 
Another hint of what may be looming on the horizon can be found in MLB’s latest collective-bargaining agreement with the baseball players’ union. The new labor deal, finalized last December, includes a provision preventing players from displaying corporate-logo tattoos. Why? Because the owners don’t want a player with a Budweiser tat ending up on a team that wears a Coors jersey patch.

“I think it’s a bad development,” says Todd Radom, a graphic designer who designed the uniforms for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the logo for Super Bowl XXXVIII, and lots of other Big Four uniforms and graphics. “If you think of a team as a brand, sports fans are the most tribal, most devoted brand loyalists out there. And the minute you put the brand next to some other brand, it starts to dilute that value.”

To put that in a comparative context, let’s say you’re brand-loyal to a certain breakfast cereal. You’ve presumably developed a certain internal connection to the cereal’s logo and packaging, but you also like the product: its flavor, its mouth-feel, and so on. If the quality of the product changed significantly, you’d probably find another cereal. In the sports world, however, the quality of the product is changing all the time—players get traded, they get injured, they retire, and so on—so a team can be very good one year and mediocre the next. Despite this, a fan of, say, the Denver Nuggets will keep on rooting for that Nuggets uniform, no matter who’s wearing it. That’s an unusually intense form of brand loyalty. Do team and league executives really want to risk cheapening that bond?

They may think it’s a risk worth taking. A 2011 Horizon Media study indicated that a commercial logo on an NBA team’s jersey would produce over $31 million in exposure value. That’s a tough enticement to resist. And how would fans react to this? It’s easy to imagine sports-addicted American fans simply muttering, “Yeah, whatever,” and sitting down in front of their flat screens to watch the next game. But though Americans may be highly materialistic capitalists, they also tend to have strong feelings about the heritage and integrity of their favorite sports. In 2004, when Major League Baseball announced plans to put ads for the movie Spider-Man 2 on the bases (not quite the same thing as uniform ads, but certainly a close cousin), the fan and media backlash was so strong that the idea was quickly scrapped. Big Four executives are probably thinking a lot about that as they consider taking the uniform-sponsorship plunge.
 
Football uniforms will be revamped to incorporate wearable sandwich boards. Quarterbacks will be required to wear an accompanying headpiece for added advertising exposure and “wow factor.” Branded napkins will be used as penalty flags.
 

At its heart, the debate over uniform advertising is a proxy for a series of larger questions: Are pro-sports franchises simply business entities? Or are these teams—which wear the names of our cities, unite our communities, play in taxpayer-financed and publicly owned facilities, and often receive generous tax breaks—also civic entities? Is owning a major-level sports team a public trust? If so, what sorts of responsibilities accrue to ownership, and how do those responsibilities collide with the issue of uniform advertising? Are there places where advertising simply doesn’t belong, or things that we as a society have said are not for sale—and does a sports uniform belong on either of those lists?

From a design standpoint, uniform ads make a tricky job even trickier. “It basically creates more clutter,” says Radom, the uniform designer. “That’s not necessarily a new thing—lots of teams add sleeve patches and memorial patches and other elements—but the fact that it’s commercial gives it greater weight. And with basketball, there are no sleeves and the shoulder areas are very thin, so you don’t have as much space to work with.”

Such challenges notwithstanding, Radom views uniform ads as an unfortunate inevitability, probably within the next five years. “It’s just too valuable a piece of real estate for them not to make some hay out of it,” he says.

Well, maybe. The Big Four have been publicly discussing the possibility of uniform advertising at least since 1999 (and have probably been talking about it in private for considerably longer than that). For much of that time, the issue has been viewed as a fait accompli—sometimes, clearly, by advertising proponents who hope that describing uniform ads as inevitable will turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, the Big Four haven’t pulled the trigger yet. And as the Spider-Man 2 episode shows, fans have their own ideas. Perhaps this is one area where America will remain less commercial than the rest of the world. ▪
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Paul Lukas is a senior writer at ESPN.com, where he writes “Uni Watch,” the sports world’s foremost (okay, only) column devoted to uniform and logo design. He also blogs at uni-watch.com.

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