What is the NBA thinking? Sponsored jerseys under consideration

The New York Times recently reported on the NBA’s consideration of jersey sponsorship. The report cites examples of the WNBA and MLS as prior successes.

From the article:

Adam Silver, the N.B.A.’s deputy commissioner, said in an e-mail:
“If we add sponsor logos to jerseys, we recognize that some of our fans will think we’ve lost our minds. But the N.B.A. is a global business and logos on jerseys are well established in other sports and commonplace outside the U.S. Our goal isn’t to be the first major league to do it, but in the same way that virtually all arenas and stadiums now have naming rights deals, we recognize it’s only a matter of time.” […]

In 2009, the [WNBA’s] Phoenix Mercury signed a three-year deal worth at least $1 million annually with LifeLock, the identity theft protection company, to replace the name on its jersey with the company’s name. […]

Four teams followed the Mercury-LifeLock deal with similar ones: the Liberty, with Foxwoods Resort; the Los Angeles Sparks (Farmers Insurance); the Seattle Storm (Bing); and the Washington Mystics (Inova Health System). Then, last season, Boost Mobile acquired the rights to add its logo beneath the players’ numbers on the jerseys of 10 of the 12 W.N.B.A. teams.

For reference, here are pictures of the 2009-2010 home jerseys and 2009-2010 away jerseys of the Phoenix Mercury, courtesy of sportslogos.net. The first problem I notice is one can’t tell what city these jerseys are from unless you know which team Lifelock sponsored that year. There is no mention of Phoenix anywhere on the jersey. Not even in smaller type.

Contrast this with the Houston Dynamo’s 2007-2008 home jerseys and 2007-2008 road jerseys (also from sportslogos.net). The Dynamo have since added a sponsor in similar fashion to the Mercury starting with the 2008-2009 season; though there is a smaller Dynamo logo elsewhere on the jersey, similar confusion now results for new fans to the game who wonder who this “Amigo Energy” or “Greenstar” team is (previous and current Dynamo uniform sponsors, respectively).

While I do have a favorite NASCAR driver (Kurt Busch), I hardly ever watch the races on television. But I do know there are sponsor logos everywhere–the cars, the driver uniform, the pit crew. NASCAR is a bit different, though, as the cost of keeping a team going without sponsors is prohibitive, though it could be done if the race lengths were shortened by a factor of 10. I will happily concede the Daytona 50 just doesn’t have the same ring to it, nor would it attract as many fans.

With sponsors also comes the possibility of silly conflicts. Not only are NASCAR’s vehicles and teams sponsored, but NASCAR’s various series are sponsored as well. Best known to most fans is the Sprint Cup Series, sponsored by the mobile phone provider of the same name. Flash back to 2007 when AT&T merged with BellSouth, and Cingular would cease to exist as a mobile phone brand. At the time, Cingular was the sponsor of the #31 car (Richard Childress Racing). AT&T thought they would be able to just take the Cingular logos off the car, put on the new AT&T logo, and be done with it. Sprint had other ideas, and for a short time the #31 car raced without a sponsor logo. Eventually a deal was worked out where AT&T could sponsor the car in 2008 but only after agreeing to leave the sport afterwards–a pretty lousy deal for AT&T given that they paid for sponsorship through 2010.

I point out NASCAR here to show what it looks like at the bottom of the slippery slope. I don’t want NBA uniforms to look like that, and I can only imagine the can of worms opened up when, say, Apple sponsors the LA Clippers uniforms and then gets hacked off when Microsoft or Google wants to sponsor the All-Star Game. Really now, if I want to watch soap operas I can add Young and the Restless to my DVR’s recording list.

It may seem strange, but I actually miss simple yet profound NBA arena names like The Summit, The Forum, The Spectrum, Boston Garden, etc. I remember vividly reading the reaction of a kid to the renaming of The Summit to Compaq Center, which went something like “are they playing basketball or selling computers?” Adult fans have complained about the overmerchandising of Toyota’s motor vehicles at the Rockets’ new home, Toyota Center, something that to my knowledge Compaq was not guilty of during that company/brand’s time as naming rights holder of the Rockets’ former home.

The practical problems are enough by themselves. But, even as a marketing/PR consultant, I honestly feel that sponsor logos on uniforms just flat out look tacky. It’s almost like the NBA is saying “we give up, we’re broke”. I also have serious doubts the would-be sponsors would want their company name associated with gang activity. In theory, of course, the gangs can already use WNBA or MLS uniforms as their attire but I don’t think this is likely as the NBA is much better known.

In conclusion, if the NBA really wants me gone as a fan, this is a great move. I am not against sponsorships and advertising in principle but the line has to be drawn somewhere. I also hope the NBA thinks ahead, and realizes the only thing tackier than sponsored uniforms today, is NBA footage of today’s games shown 5, 10, 20 years from now with the name of some now-bankrupt or since-taken-over company splashed across the players’ jerseys. Or worse, if it’s decided a given product can’t be advertised on TV and they sponsored NBA jerseys for a given year, to just air those games may mean some guy is working overtime on the blur machine. Indeed, it would be quite hilarious if the NBA did this, then abandons the experiment after four or five seasons and then we heard sportscasters talk about “the sponsored jersey era” after realizing just what a bad move it was.