At various points over the past few months, it has seemed like a foregone conclusion that NBA teams would add advertisements to their on-court jerseys. As mentioned by deputy commissioner Adam Silver in July, those ads would be relatively small patches, not full logos and names across the chest as we've seen in the WNBA and every functioning soccer league in the world. That was a sensible suggestion, at least within the narrow parameters of this argument, and seemed likely to happen very soon.
However, it appears that NBA owners are not unified on this front. According to David Stern, disagreement among owners is holding up any plans for ads on jerseys. From A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com, overseas covering the Celtics' trip to Milan (via PBT):
[I]f the league begins to allow advertising on jerseys, it won't be because of any lobbying efforts on Stern's part. "It's something that's being discussed by the NBA Board of Governors," said Stern who was in attendance at Boston's 105-75 win over EA7 Emporio Armani. "This is the one forum that understands that advertising on team jerseys has gone on for decades, both in football and in basketball, virtually every other sport."
And while he recognizes the upside of such a decision - increased revenue - Stern likes the league's jerseys as they are now. "As a personal matter, I am not in favor of it, but I'm not standing in the way of it," Stern said. "If my board wants to do it, we'll do it."
It is clear that Stern's opposition to having ads on jerseys has more to do with tradition than anything else. "Of all the leagues in the world, the NBA is the only one that has its own logo on it," Stern said. "No information of the manufacturer and no sponsor, and that is something that I have worked hard to preserve for many decades. But I understand that the team may have to come to consider it. So we're going to let the Board of Governors decide what to do."
These comments are surprising not necessarily because of the content, which is actually pretty sensible, but because they fly in the face of everything we've come to expect from owners and league representatives over the past few years. For one thing, Stern effectively contradicts what Silver said only three months ago, when he related that teams were "excited by the opportunity" to put ads on jerseys. While it's not totally shocking that Stern and/or Silver would misrepresent the popularity of this idea for their own financial gain, it's also unlikely that they wouldn't be in synch in public. Unless, that is, they have a good cop/bad cop game worked out to placate both sides of the argument.
More generally, though, it seems difficult to imagine that owners, who over the lockout and various related incidents have seemed almost pathologically obsessed with profits, to deny a surefire source of profit. The reason might be a useful bit of foresight. Though ads would surely bring in more money, owners of the leagues historically successful franchises — the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, and Bulls, in particular — likely realize that their most effective marketing tool is their brands. An ad, no matter how small, would represent a break with history. For some teams, like the Bobcats and Thunder, that wouldn't much matter. For others, it's a big deal.
It still seems likely that these ads will be added to jerseys in the near future, because money usually wins out when large corporations work with other large corporations. But whether on purpose or not, David Stern just laid out the best argument against the initiative. It's not just about upholding tradition — one of the NBA's best marketing assets would also be lost. The connection between Derrick Rose and Michael Jordan doesn't look so meaningful when one Bulls jersey features a Papa John's logo.
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