A couple of weeks back, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced that within five years corporate logos would start appearing on player’s jerseys. “I think it’s inevitable,” he said, before qualifying that statement with, “most likely.”
Imagine it: Okalahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook hovers just beyond the three-point line, ball in hand, energy coiled. With a flash of a shoulder fake, he’s off. A few strides and a couple dribbles later, he leaps, he lingers, he dunks. Both feet back on Earth, fists clenched in triumph, the camera zooms in on Westbrook’s chest to fill television screens across America with the official emblem of Dunkin’ Donuts.
In 2010, Sports Illustrated reported that 20 English Premier League soccer teams earned $155 million by selling ad space on their jerseys for a single season. The number got some people thinking: How much might the NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB make if they did that? Well, a year later, New York-based Horizon Media estimated that by refusing to let Allstate, Samsung, and Doritos promote their brands on team uniforms, North America’s big four sports leagues were missing out on $370 million per year.
“People get used to all kinds of unpleasant situations, but that doesn’t make the unpleasantness any less real, nor does it justify the unpleasantness. Just because you can sell something, doesn’t mean you should sell something.”
“If we add sponsor logos to jerseys, we recognize that some of our fans will think we’ve lost our minds,” Silver, then the NBA’s deputy commissioner, told The New York Times back in 2012. “But the NBA is a global business and logos on jerseys are well established in other sports and commonplace outside the US.”
He’s right: Only in America, a land of highway billboards and ads on the back of grocery store receipts, is the placement of sponsors on team uniforms considered taboo. Everybody else—Canadian football, European hockey, South American baseball, the international world of soccer, cricket, and rugby—seems just fine with the practice.
Silver’s also correct in reminding everyone that professional sports exist at the level they do because they make money. Lots of it. Owners, after all, aren’t paying athletes huge salaries to skate, tackle, and chew gum near third base for altruistic reasons. So what’s America’s holdup?
THE ABSENCE OF SPONSORED logos almost feels inconsistent, given the nation’s reputation for promoting basically anything and everything without shame. Aren’t fans already sort of kind of used to watching the Lakers play at the Staples Center, Hertz boasting about its fleet of rental cars along outfield walls, and Miller Lite bringing viewers the top three turning points of the game? Also, the symbols of sportswear manufacturers Nike and Adidas already appear on the sleeves and collarbone areas of NFL and NBA jerseys.
At this point, putting ads on athletes is an integral part of the PGA, NASCAR, WNBA, and MLS. Plus, some teams within the big four have already dabbled with sponsored logos on practice jerseys. So why not just do it? What it so special about game-day jerseys in a realm of entertainment already saturated with corporate advertising?
Part of this refusal, of course, comes down to tradition. According to an article published in the journal Soccer & Society, jersey sponsorship in soccer dates back to the 1950s. In the 1970s, it became a common form of revenue for soccer clubs in the U.K. and much of Europe. Perhaps, then, international fans have simply had more time to adjust, assuming there was an initial backlash to begin with.
Now, decades later, “the quality of company that wants to put advertising on your jersey” is seen by European soccer clubs as “a sign of prestige,” says Richard Jensen, a professor of marketing at Montclair State University and co-author of the study.
But this doesn’t explain everything. If America’s four major sports leagues wanted to, they could slap a Verizon FiOS patch on the chest of every player, potentially lose a handful of fans who subscribe to some ideal notion of purity, then invest the additional earnings in acquiring new fans who don’t really care either way. In a generation or two, would anyone get nostalgic about the ad-free golden age of old-timey jerseys way back in the 20th century?
“People get used to all kinds of unpleasant situations, but that doesn’t make the unpleasantness any less real, nor does it justify the unpleasantness,” says Paul Lukas, a columnist for ESPN and person-in-charge of the blog Uni Watch. “Just because you can sell something, doesn’t mean you should sell something.”
For Lukas, who’s written about this topic at length, ads on jerseys will only add to the growing levels of cynicism sports fans already feel toward the rampant consumerism permeating throughout American leagues. While other leagues may depend on this business model to remain solvent, the big four do not. There’s a line between profit and greed, Lukas argues, and sullying a team’s brand with an appeal to pick up a box of Honey Nut Cheerios after the game is one way to cross it.
But again—why? Why is the jersey one step too far?
MAYBE IT’S A SIMPLE conflict of interest between what a team is promoting and what individual players are promoting in their free time. Imagine the confusion if, say, Peyton Manning appeared in a TV commercial broadcast throughout the week strumming a Fender guitar but then wore a jersey adorned with a Gibson guitar when the Broncos played on Sunday. This very thing happened a few years ago when younger brother Eli Manning signed a deal with Citizen Watches only to have his New York Giants later sign a deal with competitor Timex allowing the brand to advertise on the team’s practice jerseys. All parties eventually agreed on a solution: Manning would shed his uniform for each pre- and post-practice interview.
Another argument many people assert, including Lukas, is that in the U.S. sports teams are seen more as civic entities than corporate vessels. Rather than merely being a medium of entertainment for the community, the local team is the community. This is why the PGA and NASCAR can get away with it—solo athletes don’t represent anything beyond themselves.
“We find that authority and purity and loyalty are very important American values,” says Nicholas Bowman, a communications professor at West Virginia University and also a co-author of the aforementioned study in Soccer & Society. “I suspect that this type of approach leads to holding things sacred. It’s a bit of a stretch, but maybe it’s not a stretch. Once we find that idol, that token, that flag, we don’t touch it.”
Because ads on jerseys are prevalent in all other parts of the planet except for here, Lukas also suggests we might be dealing with a genuine example of something rather rare: American exceptionalism.
“People often deride Americans for being too capitalistic or selling anything, but here’s a piece of our heritage and our visual culture that we have not sold, while the rest of the world has,” Lukas says. “I think that’s something to be proud of, and I hope that continues to be the case.”