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Selling the Shirt Off Your Back

How long will it be until American sports teams begin putting ads on their jerseys?

Author Joe DeLessio Illustration Daniel Downey

thefanThink of the most iconic jerseys in American sports: the New York Yankees’ pinstripes, the Detroit Red Wings’ winged tire, the Los Angeles Lakers’ “forum blue and gold.” Now imagine those uniforms plastered over with the logos of McDonald’s, Ford, Target.

Such a vision may seem sacrilegious to American sports fans, but venture outside the U.S. and you’ll find that advertising on pro sports uniforms is commonplace. Manchester United, in England’s top soccer league, has a Chevrolet logo on its kit. The Orix Buffaloes, of Japan’s top baseball league, have featured the logo of Solar Frontier, a Tokyo-based energy company, just above the team’s name. And pro hockey players in Europe often look like skating billboards, with sponsors crammed onto every bit of space on their uniforms.

Advertising in sports in the U.S. is nearly ubiquitous, of course—ask anyone who’s gone through the gauntlet of commercials that is football Sunday—but the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball have so far resisted the urge to allow ads on their teams’ everyday uniforms, despite the potential for substantial revenues. Man U’s deal with Chevy, for example, will see the automaker pay the club  $559 million over seven years. 

Paul Lukas, who writes the “Uni Watch” column at ESPN.com, suggests that American sports fans may be at their breaking point when it comes to corporate encroachment. “There is a perception, and I think it’s accurate, that every aspect of the sporting experience has been sold to corporate sponsorship,” Lukas says. “One of the last things that does not have advertising is the uniform, and I think a lot of fans don’t want to see that sullied.”

Lukas also posits that rooting for a team is a form of brand loyalty that extends to the uniforms themselves. After all, most fans stick with their team through player changes and the highs and lows of the success cycle; Jerry Seinfeld famously observed that sports fans are “actually rooting for the clothes, when you get right down to it.”

“It spans generations within families, this loyalty to whoever is wearing a particular uniform,” Lukas says. “So fans don’t like things messing with their uniforms.” He adds, “I like to think of this as a rare example of genuine American exceptionalism, that our uniforms do not have corporate advertising on them. It’s something that sets us apart and that we can and should be proud of.”

But there’s always the lure of the almighty dollar. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said it’s “inevitable” that the league will one day slap ads on jerseys. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters this past September that it would take “a lot, a lot, a lot of money” to get the league to put corporate ads on its jerseys—but COO John Collins has said that it’s “coming and happening.” 

The advertising invasion has already begun in some smaller American sports leagues. Major League Soccer has allowed jersey ads since the 2007 season, and the WNBA allowed them beginning with the 2009 season.

 “Jersey-front advertising put MLS in a trendsetting position in this part of the world,” says league spokesperson Sean Dennison. “MLS was, and still is, a progressive league, and in 2007, we joined the rest of the soccer world with the incorporation of advertisers on the front of jerseys.” That progressiveness, of course, also gave the league’s teams a new source of revenue.

For potential advertisers, the allure of sponsorship is obvious—especially when the logo appears in a prime position on the jersey. “The public is crazy about jerseys, so fans are wearing these jerseys,” says Ramon Martinez, director of public relations for Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort, whose logo appears on the front of the jerseys of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, above the number, where the team’s name or city would otherwise go. “With every game, every TV interview, every photograph, we get exposure. It’s a great opportunity for us to get our name out to the public.”

Given the financial incentive for both the leagues and their corporate partners, it seems assured that jersey advertisements will happen. In truth, the Big Four leagues have already flirted with the idea. During season-opening MLB games held in Japan, players have worn sponsor logos on their jerseys and batting helmets. The NFL, NBA, and NHL already allow ads on practice jerseys. But putting ads on game jerseys on a permanent basis is likely to cause a bigger pushback, and fans have demonstrated that there’s a limit to how much they’ll allow advertisements to creep into their sports experience. In 2004, MLB struck a sponsorship deal in which a Spider-Man 2 logo would appear on bases during regular-season games—only to back off the plan  following a public outcry.

For his part, Lukas wonders if Silver’s comments that jersey ads are inevitable are strategic “trial balloons” designed to soften people up to the idea and make jersey ads seem like they really are unavoidable. “It’s clearly his attempt to make that statement a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Lukas says. “If it were truly inevitable, it would have happened by now, right? He’s been saying it for,  like, four years, but it hasn’t happened yet. So maybe it isn’t inevitable.” 

Joe DeLessio covers sports for New York magazine’s website. He’d happily take $559 million to wear a Chevy logo on his shirt.

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