News was made recently when several media outlets reported that the NBA was considering selling ad space on the hallowed NBA jersey. This was not news to me, as I suggested this possibility in my article for HoopsHype almost a year ago, in hopes that some creative ideas on expanding BRI could perhaps help save the 2011-12 season.
While the NBA has not yet given the green light to jersey endorsements, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes that it’s a done deal at the right price, saying “If the amount's enough, David will jump up and down.” After all, the writing was on the wall back in 2009 when Cuban opened his Mavericks’ practice jerseys to sponsor HDNet.
In the following article, I will consider and critique arguments both for and against NBA jersey endorsements and finally give my thoughts about what we can expect from the NBA jersey moving forward.
First and foremost, and as we are so often reminded, the NBA is a business whose main stakeholders are franchise owners and the on-court talent that they employ (we will get to the fans momentarily). During the past NBA lockout, when the NBA and NBPA agreed to a nearly 50-50 split of BRI, ownership and players became nearly even partners in the NBA enterprise.
When these two parties argue, as we have seen, pride gets involved, big egos get bruised and money gets lost. Much like that annoying Jimmy Fallon commercial, it’s pretty much undisputed that most adults agree that more money is better than less money. That’s ultimately what will decide this jersey issue; every day that a player puts on a jersey sans endorsements, money is left on the table. The desire to increase BRI is certainly one issue that will unite the owners and the players.
After all, it’s almost always all about the money. That’s why most uber-talented 18 year olds dutifully play just one mandatory year in college before promptly heading to the NBA. That’s why, during their one year in college, raising their draft stock takes precedence over raising their GPA. That’s why NBA players often turn in particularly strong performances during contract years. And that’s why we already see sponsors’ names nearly everywhere we look within an NBA arena.
But can we really blame them? The average NBA career is only about five years short, and the majority of players are broke within five years of retiring. So who can blame them for wanting to get while the getting is good? They should want to milk the most out of their incredibly unique talents before the well runs dry. How is this desire different from the average consumer trying to get the best deal possible or the average employee negotiating with his or her employer for a bonus or a raise?
Fans will retort that the NBA and its players won’t be so well off when they stop buying jerseys and stop going to games because the all-hallowed NBA jersey has been tainted. For all the stink that fans and the media will raise over the sanctity of jerseys, we know from the work of David Berri et. al. in “The Wages of Wins” that fans come back in full force even on the heels of a significant lockout. Isn’t a lockout that costs games and entire seasons a bigger slight to fans than some ads on a garment? Isn’t the game itself what matters most?
After all, there is precedent all around sports for jersey endorsements. The NASCAR car and uniform are both littered with endorsements. Soccer teams' jerseys display team sponsors far more prominently than even the team’s own crest, and soccer is the world’s most popular sport. And soccer jerseys still sell like crazy. In boxing, fighters have been known to stencil ads on the skin of their own backs prior to prize fights. Why should the NBA not be afforded these same opportunities?
Even within NBA basketball today, there is a pre-existing trend of tradition giving way to the present day. And despite this (or maybe because of it?), the NBA makes more revenue than ever.
For example, Red Auerbach’s Celtics refused to employ a team mascot or cheerleaders while they played in the cramped and uncomfortable Boston Garden. Despite their inclusion of cheerleaders, mascot Lucky, and even selling away the naming rights of the Boston Garden, the Celtics’ current sellout streak is among the NBA’s best.
Across the league, we have seen advertisements on the court and on scorers’ tables. We have seen NBA jerseys change with the times, including the introduction of the NBA logo on the jersey (and, in some cases, the jersey manufacturer’s logo as well). In the early 80s, the NBA jersey was populated only by the team’s name and the player’s number.
The NBA jersey itself is already an NBA marketing machine, with alternate jersey nights, throwback jersey nights, Irish Heritage/St. Patrick’s Day nights, and Hispanic Heritage nights. As it stands, the “classic”, “timeless” jersey is already a thing of the past. If fans haven’t been up in arms about each of these departures from tradition, why the great uproar now?
In the film industry, going to the movies used to include used a “short” prior to the actual full-length film. These artistic films gave way to a showing of “previews,” which everyone knows are merely commercials for future films. Because people going to the movies often enjoy the anticipation of upcoming films, the previews weren’t so bad. Then came the commercials which came before the previews, or pre-commercial commercials as I like to call them. It’s happening all around us, but people continue to attend live sporting events and continue to pay more than ever to enjoy the movies. The film and sports industry understand the meaning and value of a truly captive audience.
Perhaps fans could get more behind jersey endorsements if they resulted in the games costing less to attend, much as TV commercials afford Americans better quality programming at cheaper prices than if commercials weren’t there at all. A 21st century example might the subsidization of the internet’s most popular websites through advertising dollars (Facebook, ESPN, HoopsHype!). However, I do not anticipate ticket prices changing because of the added revenues from jersey ad space. NBA teams will continue to charge whatever the market will bear for fans to see top flight athletic talent compete before their eyes. For most fans, that’s most of what the NBA is all about.
As promised, I will also discuss potential drawbacks to endorsements on the NBA jersey. First, purist fans who appreciate the aesthetic and history of a jersey that does not change with time will be disappointed. While I’ve already pointed out just a few of the many ways that jerseys have changed already (not to mention the length of shorts, armbands, and headbands), in large part they have at least remained free of endorsements.
For many, in an ever-changing and quickly changing world, the NBA jersey (at least for a handful of teams like the Celtics and Knicks) was a constant. For some fans, seeing endorsements on these iconic jerseys will make them feel bad emotionally, and since fans are stakeholders in the game, this is especially something to consider if fans walk away from the game and/or meaningfully scale back jersey purchases (Note: They won’t).
Let’s recall that many fans were originally opposed to the “dunk shot,” and it was even outlawed for a time. The three-pointer did not come to exist until 1979, and many players and coaches were initially leery of its desirability. While these “atrocities” are now seen as “innovations,” littering jerseys with ad space won’t change the play of the game in any beneficial way, or really any way at all. So the grievance really has nothing to do with the sanctity of the game but rather the purity of it. With NBA players getting paid millions to get married on the E! channel, and with shows like Basketball Wives in existence, how much sanctity is left to mar?
The counterargument would be that at least on the court the game remains pure. But just what occurs on the court might prove to be a significant issue for sponsors. Let’s hypothesize that another event akin to “Brawl at the Palace” occurred after the time that players’ uniforms donned sponsors’ names and logos. Would a company like Twizzlers with the logo “Makes Mouths Happy” want their message associated with the punching of fans, the indiscriminate throwing of chairs, and perhaps worse? These incidents promise to be extremely rare, but in every NBA generation they occur.
Additionally, endorsements on jerseys make every player a brand ambassador for the products advertised, and this could certainly come into conflict with players’ own advertising opportunities, especially the most famous players. For instance, if the Lakers were sponsored by Burger King and if Kobe Bryant wanted to do a McDonald’s spot on TV, he might be prohibited by the Lakers due to the conflict of interest. It should be noted that this could happen today, but with the increasing number of ads on jerseys, players’ personal endorsement opportunities might suffer (Note: They might also increase).
Another issue might be the possibility that players’ uniforms might advertise goods or services to which the player has a personal, philosophical objection. For example, if a clothing manufacturer or a coffee shop endorsing a player’s jersey relied on sweatshop labor to produce its products, players might prefer not to be walking billboards for these companies. While most NBA players are probably most concerned with their paychecks, the NBA takes very seriously its “Mannie Jackson”, the Human Spirit Award. If a player used his fame to speak out on an issue with manufacturing processes, whose side would the NBA take: the humanitarian or the sponsor?
At the end of the day, I think Rick Kamla’s personal take on the issue will carry the day. While I could not find the exact quote, he generally stated his support for things that make it possible for people associated with the business of the NBA to be financially successful and to take care of their families. Obviously, everyone draws their line somewhere, but for most owners, players, broadcasters, and fans it is not with endorsements on jerseys. Fans will not maroon the game if endorsements are allowed on jerseys because their love of the game itself is greater than their love of the unblemished jersey.
It may begin with the small market teams or hard-up owners looking to make a little extra cash. It will start out subtly, with perhaps just a logo opposite the NBA logo or a spot on the seat of the shorts, where teams have already experimented with placing their own logo. Eventually, enough money will be there that some franchise decides to go the way of soccer and make its crest secondary to its sponsors’ logos.
It is my hope that David Stern expresses a desire that the NBA jersey remain chiefly a celebration of the franchise whose players are wearing it. However, he represents 30 owners who could stand to profit immensely by changing the jersey to glorify commercialism. So he won’t make that proclamation.
I can see it now... the future’s “throwback jersey night” will be a night that features a relic of the olden days, a jersey without ads...