If there is one thing Americans hate, it’s ads. YouTube ads, website ads, and TV commercials are all things that Americans love to avoid. They use ad blockers, mute commercials and mock them. That being said, ads have always played a vital role in major sports. Believe it or not, they are the reason your favorite players get multi-million dollar paychecks. Until now, advertisements have not significantly interfered with major sporting events the way they do in other parts of the world. Leagues within Europe have been dominated by advertisements for years. Typically, when Americans see a jersey with an ad on it, they immediately assume it’s a European sports team. After all, US teams don’t plaster ads all over jerseys like European teams do, right? Well, that may not be the case for much longer. The tide in the sports industry is turning and the big four U.S. sports leagues are now considering the idea of engaging in sponsorship deals. Corporations no longer fight over naming rights for arenas or hang their hats on TV promotional deals with retired athletes like Shaq and Brett Favre. Instead they are looking for more creative and lucrative ways to increase brand recognition.
Over the last few years, the NFL has become notorious for signing multi-billion dollar TV contracts while their viewership numbers dwindled. In fact, the league recently reported the most significant drop in viewership since the 2013-14 season. Unfortunately for football fans, branded field goal nets won’t be enough to hold up the league on their own. The NFL, now scrambling to find another source of revenue is turning to a new type of ad – at least new in the US. Several NFL teams, such as the Houston Texans, have begun implementing ads on their practice jerseys in an attempt to increase revenue. Sponsors such as Gillette, Hyundai, and Comcast (Xfinity) have purchased space just under the neck of elite NFL players such as Tom Brady, Larry Fitzgerald, and JJ Watt. For now, the NFL has resisted including brand logos on player’s game worn jerseys, but one can’t help but think it won’t be long before they slip down the slippery slope of commercialization to maximize their profit, even if it’s at the fans’ expense.
Other leagues such as the NBA have been less conservative. This year the NBA permitted teams to include a small 12 x 12 inch sponsored logo on the top left part of players’ jerseys. The small logos have been a big success, to say the least. Teams like the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have been able to negotiate highly lucrative deals with sponsors like — the popular Japanese electronics commerce company– Rakuten and Goodyear Tire. Interestingly, Rakuten also signed a deal with soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona in an attempt to increase brand recognition in major markets such as the United States and Europe. Now every second superstar players like Steph Curry are broadcast on ESPN means millions of dollars in brand recognition for the company.
The NBA isn’t the only basketball league benefiting from this idea. The WNBA incorporated brand logos adopted the idea in 2009, long before the big four professional men’s leagues caught on. Since then, the league has used the cash influx to save financially strapped teams instead of increasing players’ salaries. Prominent WNBA teams — such as the three-time WNBA champion Phoenix Mercury, say they simply wouldn’t exist without the jersey advertisements.
The trend is spreading and now other leagues — like the NHL, for example – are considering making a change. The NHL, which has historically resisted the idea of jersey ads is starting to run the numbers and to gauge the potential financial benefits. Teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs have already lined up sponsorship partners should the league approve the use of ads on jerseys. The league’s remains hesitant to disappoint their loyal fans by having advertisements interfere with the product they have grown to love. While the NHL has remained predominantly ad-free for a century and still managed to increase revenue through other means, European leagues have continued to commercialize every component of their leagues. The NHL would prefer to avoid this type of commercialization and continue to relegate advertising to the boards and surfaces beneath the skating surface of arenas.
While ads in the NHL may in the NHL’s future, it seems to be an issue that has been put on ice for now.
One of the main problems that fans have with the idea of adding sponsorships revolves around money. Fans question: Do players and teams that are already making several million dollars a year really need more money? This question has plagued the concept since its inception and shrouded it with uncertainty.
So what about the fans? Sadly, the money derived from these major deals won’t go towards reducing ticket prices. Instead it will line the pockets of owners and players. The only good news for fans is that, as it stands, ads on NBA players’ jerseys won’t be included on the replicas that they purchase. While this is a nice concession, it is important to remember that the real problem with advertisements on jerseys lies in the fact that many US fans don’t want their favorite players to look like race cars.
As an American sports fan, it’s important to remember that these ideas primarily originated in Europe or in sports where there is minimal US viewership or minimal advertising time (i.e. Soccer). But U.S. major sports already possess strong viewership and advertising time, so the question becomes: Do they really need more advertising revenue? And how long will it take for the advertising to begin trickling down into college and high school athletics?