Professional leagues inch toward uniform ads

The Toronto Maple Leafs took a bizarre approach to advertising when they struck a deal with Right Guard to place a replica deodorant stick on the team’s Zamboni. Unsurprisingly, the NHL refused to allow the Zamboni on the ice owing either to the league’s deal with P&G — competitor to Right Guard’s parent company Dial — or to save itself from the embarrassing sight.

Right Guard’s proposal, though thwarted by the league, reignites the growing debate in North American professional leagues about ceding precious space usually reserved for team logos to advertisers, especially on uniforms.

The two most obvious examples of in-game advertising are soccer uniforms and NASCAR cars and racing suits. MLS teams generate $1 million to $5 million every year based on these advertisements, and primary sponsors in NASCAR pay $5 million to $35 million.

(Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports)

The presence of ads are hardly unexpected in these two sports. NASCAR has been using car bodies for advertising since the 1970s. European football teams have featured advertisements for decades and at staggering prices; in 2012 Manchester United signed a seven-year $559 million deal with GM, promising the team $70 million during this season alone.

(Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports)

Every major U.S. professional league has discussed placing logos on uniforms. The NHL rejected a proposal that could have netted around $4 million per team last month. In 2012, the NFL decided against placing logos on its uniforms and hasn’t revisited the issue since, though its uniform manufacturer ­­— Nike as of 2012 — is allowed to include its logo. Several teams have also sold ad space on their practice uniforms.

Former MLB commissioner Bud Selig emphatically closed the door on uniform advertisements, deferring to the nostalgia of historic uniforms felt by a fan base that is significantly older than in other sports. Even Majestic, MLB’s official uniform manufacturer, is only allowed to display a small logo on the left sleeve, creating confusion because of the prominence of Nike swooshes on players’ undershirts. Selig’s hesitation may also come from past experiences; the league quickly abandoned an attempt to sell ad space on bases over a decade ago after massive public outcry.

(Credit: William Perlman/NJ Advance Media for via USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: William Perlman/NJ Advance Media for via USA TODAY Sports)

However, the MLB could make over $100 million, leading some, including San Francisco Giants CEO Larry Baer, to believe that new commissioner Rob Manfred may entertain the idea of selling jersey ads. And despite Selig’s concerns, studies have demonstrated that fans may not look negatively on uniform advertisements.

The biggest proponent of uniform ads appears to be NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who has estimated that jersey ads may come within the next five years and generate approximately $100 million league-wide. In fact, basketball has a history of experimenting with ads, including in the WNBA and NBA Development League, and many pointed to the shift of the league logo to the back of uniforms this season as a move to create space for advertisers.

One of the biggest issues leagues face is conflicting sponsorships. This came up last week when the NFL announced a ban on Beats headphones after signing a league-wide endorsement deal with Bose. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was fined by the league after he chose to wear pink Beats (in honor of breast cancer month), for which he is a spokesman.

Banning headphones on the sidelines is one thing, but what happens if a player has an individual endorsement with the competitor of his team’s uniform logo? When LeBron James suffered debilitating cramps during the 2014 NBA Finals, Gatorade took to Twitter to mock his choice of energy drink, as James is sponsored by Powerade. However, because Gatorade is an official sponsor of the NBA . . . James had to have been drinking Gatorade.

(Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)
(Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports)

The enticing prospect of easy ad revenue is hard to pass up. It’s clear, however, that the major sports are simply waiting for one of the other leagues to take the first leap. As to who that might be, it’s anyone’s guess.

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