NBA jersey sponsorship is coming – and we'd better get used to it

NBA 5

Last week the NBA did something timed sneakily – the conspiracy theorist in me believes intentionally – to coincide with the hoopla of opening week. Something that went largely unnoticed by most basketball fans.

And understandably so. NBA fans have been starved for meaningful action on the hardwood, and a hefty dollop of opening week basketball rightfully dominated the headlines. Still, what happened off the court could drastically affect the aesthetics on it, at least in the near future.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, this season’s All-Star game uniforms will have a Kia logo displayed on the front. According to the Journal: “The National Basketball Association is planning to put a sponsored 3.25in x 1.6in patch with a Kia logo on the upper left chest of player jersey’s for both the 2016 and 2017 All-Star games.”

Which basically meant: “Corporate logos are coming. So get used to it.”

While the NBA is unlikely to ever say anything this explicit, something as innocuous as a tiny patch on a jersey is far more than that. It’s a trial run.

Corporate logos adorning team jerseys are almost upon us, and it may be happening even sooner than we imagined. But the NBA is banking on the fact that fan loyalty is an unbreakable bond, one that they hope can survive jarring changes like this. It’s probably a safe bet.

In fact, it’s already happened. Last season during the Slam Dunk competition on All Star weekend, a small “Sprite Slam Dunk” patch appeared near the right shoulder of the uniforms, and there was hardly any outrage from the fans. The lack of reaction didn’t go unnoticed by NBA commissioner Adam Silver either; in fact Silver addressed the issue in an interview with the Portland Tribune. “It was fascinating to me that it got almost no attention. That goes to show that, while I understand what the notion of Nascar-like uniform conjures in fans, there is a tasteful way to have relatively small branding added to the jerseys that would provide additional value to our sponsors and the league.”

Silver hasn’t been as quiet as his predecessor David Stern, a traditionalist at heart. Stern accepted the economic realities of jersey sponsorship but he was certainly reluctant, once telling Boston Celtics reporter Sherrod Blakely: “Of all the leagues in the world, the NBA is the only one that has its own logo on it. 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 time may have to come to consider it. So we’re going to let the board of governors decide what to do.”

Silver, more of a realist, has even gone as far as calling jersey sponsorship “inevitable”. In fact the league’s latest media-rights agreement with ESPN and Turner Sports explicitly mentions a provision on jersey sponsorship revenue. According to the Sports Business Journal, revenue would be shared with the networks when the league does decide to start selling ad space on the uniforms. So the question becomes when, not if.

Sponsorship is nothing new to sport, even in the NBA. The Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento is a far-from-ideal name, but the United Center has an excellent ring to it. Even the Staples Center: the most decorated franchise in NBA history is sponsored by a stationery brand, and yet it somehow works. Of course, success plays a major role as well: fans likely aren’t so accepting if championship banners aren’t hanging from the ceiling.

Other sports have already taken the plunge. In European soccer, shirt sponsorships have become so entrenched in the game it’s often jarring to see a team without a brand plastered across the torso. But sponsorship in soccer is often justified by the lack of commercial breaks during play.

From their inception, FC Barcelona had snubbed avoided corporate sponsorship on their shirts, but finally relented by signing a deal with Unicef in 2006. Some traditionalists were against the idea, but the details of the agreement – the club donated €1.5m a year to the fund – seemed to appeasethe purists.

But when that Unicef deal expired, Barcelona’s decision to sign a five-year €150m deal with Qatar Sports Investment was met with surprisingly little vitriol.

Yet it’s still difficult to compare soccer to basketball. Jersey sponsorships in soccer replaced nothing more than a blank space on the uniform. Jersey sponsorships in the NBA could eventually replace the franchise name on the front, which is what most fans fear the most.

But fans are the only group that gains nothing at all from the sullying of the jerseys. All these lucrative deals (Sports Business Journal suggests that a market like Los Angeles could net up to $10m a year for the jersey ads) are going to do nothing but further line the pockets of the executives. If there was some way to guarantee that the money made from sponsorship could offset some other annoyance – the high price of tickets or the excessive mandatory TV timeouts, for example, then it’s would be somewhat justified for the average fan. For the average fan, it’s a lose-lose scenario.

In fact, one of the best case studies comes from the WNBA. The WNBA underwent its own sponsorship revolution in 2009, when the Phoenix Mercury became the first WNBA team to take the plunge, signing a lucrative sponsorship deal with LifeLock. The Mercury became the first team in a major American sport to have a sponsor name across the front of the jersey. Soon after the Los Angeles Sparks followed with a sponsorship deal, with Farmers Insurance plastered across the front of their uniforms. Fans were skeptical but soon accepted it.

Admittedly the kind of sponsorships in the WNBA would hardly go over well in the NBA. (Half of the WNBA teams in the 2015 season replaced their team name with a corporate logo on the front of the shirt.) And judging by Silver’s aforementioned comments he seems to understand that subtlety is the way to go.

Sponsorship works best when a brand aligns with the culture of a team. Even newer brands can make their mark by being creative. This recent effort by “Fly Emirates” airlines for Portuguese soccer club SL Benfica is a perfect example.

This will be the challenge for NBA teams, as the inevitability of sponsored jerseys becomes a distinct reality: how to mirror a team’s brand with its corporate counterpart? It’s an inexact science, but each day the NBA gets one step closer to implementing the change, thankfully – at least – it’s far more likely to be like this, than this.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Terrance F Ross, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 4th November 2015 11.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010