It's been nearly five years since the movement toward selling advertising space on NBA jerseys began gaining serious momentum. First, the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and Los Angeles Sparks inked deals to promote sponsors on their game uniforms. Soon after, the NBA opened the door to teams selling ad space on their practice jerseys. The following spring, jersey ads came to the D-League; a year later, the big league started considering the move.
While the NBA's Board of Governors remained split on the idea, some teams expressed clear interest in jersey ads. The opportunity to tap into a potentially lucrative revenue stream (with estimates for the value of the ads ranging from $31 million to more than $100 million, and perhaps as high as $157.5 million) made the introduction of advertisements seem less like a "yes or no?" question than a matter of price and style (2-1/2-inch by 2-1/2-inch patches, most likely). And, perhaps most notably, just a matter of time.
New NBA Commissioner Adam Silver all but confirmed those sentiments during a presentation this week at the 2014 IMG World Congress of Sports, terming advertisements on players' game jerseys "an idea whose time has come," according to Michael McCarthy of AdvertisingAge:
"It just creates that much more of an opportunity for our marketing partners to get that much closer to our fans and to our players. It gives us an opportunity just to have deeper integration when it comes to those forms of sponsorship. ... Increasingly as we see Champions League and English Premier League televised in the U.S., I think it's going to become more acceptable and more commonplace for our fans as well."
When asked if the switch would come within five years, Mr. Silver answered "definitely." After a moment's thought, he amended that to: "Most likely."
After his presentation, Mr. Silver told Ad Age "almost all" of the NBA's corporate sponsors have expressed interest in slapping their corporate logos on player jerseys. "I think it's coming. It's inevitable. It's such as enormous opportunity for our sponsors to connect with us. I think the marketplace is asking for it."
"The marketplace" refers to such upstanding citizens as Nike, Coca-Cola, Anheuser Busch, Taco Bell and — of course, lest we forget — Kumho Tire, the official tire sponsor of the NBA. Whether or not the fans who actually watch NBA games, buy NBA tickets and plunk down cash for the jerseys of their favorite players are asking for it is another matter entirely. (Spoiler alert: they're not!)
As my colleagues Kelly Dwyer and Eric Freeman have written before, news of the "inevitable" plastering of corporate logos all over players' jerseys will set traditionalists' stomachs to churning. (A small chest/shoulder patch might not seem like "plastering all over," but it just represents an opening gambit, because that's how these things work.) Every time this issue comes up, I find myself trying to imagine whether my eye would've been diverted by, say, a Kraft logo on Jordan's shorts as he shot over Ehlo, or a Staples-promoting rectangle on Magic's lower back as he threw up his junior sky hook at the Garden, or by a Carnival Cruise Lines ad on Ray Allen's shoulder as he rose up from the right corner in Game 6. It might not, because like the rest of you, I'd surely be more focused on the action itself than on its marketing implications — we can't all be Darren Rovell, after all — but it might, and that stinks.
Beside, that's not really the point. Every rewind and replay of future such classic moments will be turned into rank product placement; those slow-motion Phantom Cam shots we've come to love for big moments will be converted into ever-more-valuable surreptitious brand exposure. It's not a big deal in the moment, but for such a moneymaker, it sure feels cheap.
That in place, the "inevitability" of such a move isn't surprising. For one thing, while former commissioner David Stern was on the record as being opposed to the advertisements, Silver has long been seen as supporter of moving in a pro-ad direction, and it's his show now. For another, the nonstop commercialization, commodification and sale of whatever can be sold has led to ad placements not only throughout NBA arenas and all over NBA telecasts, but also on the sidelines, backboards and court itself; of course it'll extend to the uniforms the players wear, just as it has in European soccer leagues, in Major League Soccer, on the jumpsuits worn by NASCAR drivers, and on the collared shirts and hats work by PGA Tour stars. The other major American sports leagues don't do it, but if the NBA can prove that doing so will make enough money, the others will surely follow suit.
We won't even have the benefit of viewing this as a move that might help produce labor peace and financial viability for a failing league, an argument previously forwarded for ad integration on NHL jerseys. The NBA's owners smacked the player's union around in the 2011 lockout and now sit three years away from trying to do so again. While introducing jersey advertisements will tap a new revenue stream that will increase the overall pie of basketball-related income that the league's owners and players share at roughly a 50-50 split, that split used to favor the players, 57-43, and you can bet that ownership will come looking to increase its share — and its share of this brand new windfall — once again in a couple of years' time.
The league's already been testing things out and setting the stage for this for a while now. Recall, if you will, the chest patches and lower-back patches worn by rookies and sophomores during the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend; "Rising Stars" and "Team Webber" are just placeholders for forthcoming sales. Remember that D-League playoff uniforms have already borne BBVA logos where players' names once appeared on the back. Remember that the sleeved jerseys are here, and they're here to stay because they're reportedly a hot-selling commodity (no matter what four-time MVPs say), and that all that extra fabric offers a whole lot more surface area for teams and sponsors to experiment with customizing their running, jumping, shooting and dunking billboards. Remember that while Silver said last fall that the NBA is "nowhere near the point where we'd eliminate team names" from jerseys, the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx just agreed to rock a "MAYO CLINIC" front wordmark starting this summer, continuing the legacy of the Mercury/LifeLock partnership that lit this candle a few years back.
They've been preparing the way for years, and whether the rollout comes next season, in two years or at the tail end of Silver's five-year timetable, it's coming. That, sadly, is probably the most important thing to remember here: for as much as NBA teams often feel like public trusts, community assets and time-honored touchstones that we all share, they're really private businesses whose stewards just about always look to maximize revenue. Putting ads on jerseys will represent a cash grab for the richest people in the league, and it'll happen because it makes too much business sense for it not to. It'll feel weird, and jarring, and gross, and we'll get used to it, because we get used to stuff that's gross all the time.
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