Last week the Philadelphia 76ers become the first major American sports franchise to officially sell ads on their uniforms, when they reached a deal with the ticket re-seller and Yankee front office favorite, StubHub. The Sixers' move came quickly after the NBA decided in April to allow 2.5 inch by 2.5 inch advertising patches on its teams' jerseys beginning in 2017. Commissioner Adam Silver's league may be the only one of the big four taking that plunge for now, but as we learned with stadium naming rights in the 1990's, dominoes fall fast and hard when there's a buck to be made.
When he took over the job last year, MLB boss Rob Manfred claimed ads on baseball jerseys won't happen soon. "There was more chatter about that in the game ten years ago than there is now," he told the New York Times. "It's just not an issue for us. I think people have great respect for the way our uniforms look. I don't foresee that one, I really don't."
That's nice to hear, but that was before the NBA went first. Even if the commissioner meant what he said, he's being naïve if he doesn't think his 30 owners will change their minds as they watch their basketball counterparts ink big deals for tiny patches. In England, Manchester United gets 53 million GBP per year from Chevrolet to let their players' chests resemble the back of an Impala. Several other Premier League clubs have eight figure per year jersey deals, too.
The problem, if this is something that will bother you, is that there's really no downside for teams other than bad publicity, which they don't care about. Fans might get annoyed at jersey ads. They will call owners greedy (rightfully so), but they already do that. What they won't do is refuse to attend games or watch them. They won't even stop buying jerseys if the ads aren't included on the consumer versions...or even if they are. Walk down any street in Europe and you'll find soccer fans happily tromping around like walking billboards for auto makers, airlines and communications giants. In Japan it goes even farther, where teams are literally named for companies, not cities.
You can chalk it up to another example of sports being a business, and there isn't much fans can do about that. This feels different, though. As Jerry Seinfeld famously said, when we root for our teams, we root for the laundry. An ad on a uniform is not the same as one behind home plate, or on the outfield wall where retired numbers should be, or even one serving as a stadium's name. Sports are a great escape from the world - a place where no matter your political leanings, your social status, your religion, your economic standing, you can still root for the same team. OK, Lonn Trost might not agree with the last one. Still, letting mega corporations and the complex issues that come with them onto those precious pieces of cloth does more than a little to chip away at that escape.
Yankee Stadium already has a tenant with a sponsored jersey. Major League Soccer's NYCFC wears Etihad Airways' logo. That's a company which is wholly owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, which has a somewhat suspect record when it comes to human rights and labor exploitation.
There are possible issues with plenty of domestic companies, too. If you're in a union, would you want your team sporting the mark of a corporation that's notoriously anti-labor? If you're an environmentalist, how would you feel if a group that makes its living drilling holes in the habitats of your furry or finned friends suddenly appeared atop your beloved pinstripes? Or what if you just work somewhere and your team's jersey gets sold to one of your competitors? These aren't things that every fan would care about, but it would be better if no one had to wind up in that position.
Jersey sponsorships could also have a big effect on where players play. Bryce Harper gets paid a lot of money to do weird Gatorade commercials. Gatorade is owned by Pepsi. Would he not sign with a team who had a uniform contract with Coke? Would his, or Mike Trout's, or any big star's sponsors steer them toward the teams with whom they were affiliated?
Here's a look from Kunj Shah at what these jerseys might look like:
There are a lot of reasons why we're lucky to be Yankee fans, and this may be yet another. We can rest assured that they won't be signing up with StubHub any time soon, but we can also have some hope that they'll resist the wave entirely. After all, they play in a rare venue built within the past 25 years that's actually named for the team who inhabits it.
A big chunk of the Yankees' marketing has always been tradition and legacy - when you read those words in this case, imagine them spoken in the late Bob Sheppard's voice with dramatic music playing in the background. Sure, Hal Steinbrenner's dad might haunt him from beyond if he ever shrunk the interlocking NY to make room for a corporate emblem, but beyond that, the Yankees could be in an unusual spot where they'd have more to lose than to gain.
To the Yankees, the uniform is sacred. It is part of what makes them not like every other team, or at least what lets them sell that idea. It means something that today's players wear basically what Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle wore. There are no Sunday alternates, no green hats on Irish night, no (ugh) camouflage except on the unfortunate occasions when MLB mandates it. Here's hoping things stay that way.
Would you care if the Yankees someday wear ads on their uniforms? What company would be most ironic and hilarious jersey sponsor imaginable?