In March, new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told those gathered for the 2014 IMG World Congress of Sports that placing corporate logos on player’s jerseys was “inevitable.” When asked about the timing of such a move, Silver predicted “it will happen within the next five years.” He also said it could create as much as $100 million in new ad revenue for the league – not exactly a windfall given that the NBA is already a $4.6 billion business, but not exactly chump change either.
A lucrative practice
Selling advertising space on jerseys isn’t a new concept. NASCAR has unabashedly embraced its corporate sponsors for years. Both the drivers’ cars and their racing suits are plastered with them. Closer to home, the WNBA – the NBA’s sister league – began cutting deals with corporate sponsors a decade ago. In 2010, Sports Illustrated reported that the 20 English Premier League soccer teams earned $155 million in jersey logo sales. To the surprise of no one, Silver told Ad Age that “almost all” of the NBA’s corporate sponsors have expressed interest in such an arrangement, particularly those that covet the under 35 male demographic. With 45 percent of its television audience in that category, the NBA has the youngest viewers of all major sports leagues.
The NBA likens itself to international soccer where fans are well-accustomed to seeing sponsors’ logos on jerseys. According to NBA estimates, 92 players from 39 countries and territories suited up for an NBA game during the 2013-2014 season, and more than half of the 42 million daily page views registered on NBA.com came from somewhere other than the U.S. To further bolster his league’s international credibility, Silver pointed to the launch of NBA China in 2008, made possible by a $253 million investment from ESPN and several Chinese partners. The deal is estimated to be worth something north of $1.5 billion. Finally, the league opened an office in Mumbai in 2011 to introduce itself to India and its 1.2 billion people.
Not everyone is a fan of the idea, however, particularly in the U.S. It’s feared that ads on jerseys will only further alienate fans already fed up with the rampant commercialization that has taken hold in professional sports. It’s been argued that there’s a thin line between profitable viability and greed, and that crossing that line would ultimately harm the game. Others argue that fans will learn to accept, if not like, the idea. They take the view that if the move alienates some half-hearted purists, so be it. The NBA can simply use its newfound largess to invest in acquiring new fans who don’t really care one way or the other.
Silver is not oblivious to the possibility of fan backlash to the move. In 2011, he told the New York Times, “If we add sponsor logos to jerseys, we recognize that some of our fans will think we’ve lost our minds.” However, Silver went on to say: “But the NBA is a global business and logos on jerseys are well established in other sports and commonplace outside the US.”
If past patterns of behavior hold true, it’s likely the money will talk, and everything else will walk.