Michael Vitez: Place your ad, space on NBA jersey could be for sale

Posted: March 20, 2012

The professional team sports jersey in America is a holdout against advertising - how much longer will that last?

At the NBA board of governors meeting in April, owners are expected to discuss breaking down the barrier.

"It's more exploratory than - boom - we're flipping the switch," said NBA spokesman Michael Bass. "It's been a subject of ongoing conversation with our teams."

America's big four professional team sports - football, baseball, basketball and hockey - have let advertisers and sponsors put names on almost everything: stadiums, outfield walls, halftime shows, dollar dog night.

But so far the jersey itself has been sacrosanct, except for the manufacturer's own mark, like the Nike swoosh, and basketball hasn't allowed even that.

Some questions:

Is the 76ers uniform a commercial billboard - just another piece of real estate on which to slap an advertisement - or is it a public trust?

Will fans revolt - or roll over?

Will ads on jerseys generate much new revenue - or just transfer dollars from one platform, say, the name of an arena, to another, a uniform?

How will players react?

The new Sixers ownership declined to comment, waiting instead for some formal proposal from the league - a proposal that could still be years away or might never come.

Some owners are talking.

"The most appropriate question and the answer we're all waiting for is, 'What is it worth?' " Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts told the Sports Business Journal this month. "I am not suggesting this is an easy issue, but I feel like it is inevitable. We just have to agree on value and what it would look like."

"Obviously, it's a league decision, but as someone who spent seven years at NASCAR, I know the value of putting a brand on the playing field and the uniform, so it is certainly something I would support," said New Jersey Nets CEO Brett Yormark.

Elton Brand, the Sixers star forward, chuckled at the question, and then said, "I don't know, it's kind of NASCARish."

He has heard talk about it. "As a joke they're saying 'Kentucky Fried Jazz.' I wouldn't like that. But the right sponsor, I don't see any problem with it. A little logo, if it's small, it doesn't really matter that much."

Evan Turner, a Sixer and second pick in the 2010 draft, said, "I don't like the idea personally. I think it looks tacky. But the owners own the team. They make it possible to play. That's not my call."

Lavoy Allen, the 6-foot-9 Sixers rookie and Temple graduate, played in France last fall, during the NBA lockout. "We had ads on our uniforms," he said. "I wouldn't really mind it. It wouldn't really matter to me. It's not something I'd worry about. You don't think about it at all."

Bob Green is a Sixers season-ticket holder with courtside seats. His reaction: "Wow, that would be weird. I don't know . . . I don't even know what to say. That's a bizarre concept. I guess we'd get used to it. We get used to everything. But boy, wow."

Mike Herman of Worcester, Montgomery County, a more casual fan who was at a recent game with his son, said, "There's so much commercialization of sports anyhow, it wouldn't make any difference to me."

NASCAR drivers, tennis players and golfers wear advertising or sponsor logos, but they take part in individual sports.

Soccer teams around the world put advertising on their jerseys. Manchester United and Arsenal don't wear their team names across the chest - they wear the name of a sponsor.

Some say soccer is different from other team sports because there are no timeouts or commercials.

The NBA owns the WNBA, and started putting advertisments on women's uniforms in 2009, when the Phoenix Mercury put LifeLock in big letters across the chest. LifeLock is a company that protects against identity theft.

The NBA is watching carefully.

"In the United States, people just aren't used to having logos on uniforms," said one industry insider who wouldn't talk on the record. "There is tradition that says you don't. There isn't any business reason why there shouldn't, couldn't or won't be."

He said the issue is "not just greed of owners, but simple economics and math." Revenues from advertisers and sponsors today allow owners to slow the increase in ticket prices, or to sign marquee players. Third-party revenue, as he called it, "enables sports to continue to evolve."

"The NBA will be smart enough to start small," said branding strategist Adam Hanft. "And once they get a beachhead, they'll get bigger. I think it's going to happen in the next couple months."

Steve Herz, who runs a sports media and marketing business, said the league should donate a portion of the new revenue to charity, couch it as a social good to soften the blow.

Purists are standing firm.

"People get the idea that resistance is futile, which I disagree with," said Paul Lukas, who writes a blog Uni Watch, about all things uniform. "If it was such a done deal, why hasn't it happened yet?"

"Rooting for a team is the most intense form of brand loyalty in our culture," said Lukas, who also writes a column on uniforms for ESPN. "I live and die by the Mets and I really, really hate the Yankees. But if the teams traded their rosters even up, 25 guys to 25 guys, for me, I would root for the 25 guys in the Mets uniform. That is the power of uniforms, the power of the bond between the fan and the uniform."

I like this guy.

"Every aspect of sport has been sold," he said, "except the biggest emotional aspect, the branding of a team by its uniform. There are certain things that we as a society have said are not for sale. Our culture says some things simply can't be sold. And the space on the sports uniform should be one of them."

Contact Michael Vitez at 215-313-3518 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez.

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