Shirt Sponsorship: MLS Setting a Trend for US Sports?

Where Major League Soccer dares to go, other major American sports leagues follow. That’s the rare conclusion to be drawn from an article at Sports Business Daily which says NFL and NBA teams may be “not be as far as you’d think” from following MLS by allowing jersey sponsorship. Indeed, this season the NBA and NHL are following the NFL’s lead by allowing sponsors on practice jerseys, and the WNBA has already taken the step on its proper jerseys.

“Times are different,” says Joe Maloof, whose family company owns the NBA’s Sacramento Kings and WNBA’s Monarchs. “It’s a new economic climate now. Any time you can generate revenue in the right way, you should be able to do it. You have to. If we can find the right partner, why not?”

Says [NBA Deputy Commissioner] Adam Silver: “It’s a direction all teams are moving. With the advent to TiVo and the enormous number of channel and website choices, it’s become incredibly hard to hold the attention of the viewer during commercial breaks. It’s easier in live sports where viewers are more likely to stay with the program than change the channel. We have been in the product placement business from the beginning.”

This comment about product-placement time is interesting in the sense that soccer has always had this problem, with no commercial break opportunities during playing time — how curious and fascinating is it that changes in television viewing habits based on technology might be driving the business models of American sports leagues like the NBA closer to soccer?

AIG, soon to be replaced by AON as Man Utd's sponsor

AIG, soon to be replaced by AON as Man Utd's shirt sponsor

The successful introduction of shirt sponsorship to MLS just a couple of years ago has surely not gone unnoticed in American sports business circles. Eleven MLS teams now have shirt sponsors, and there’s been very little controversy about it; most Fire supporters I know, sad as we all were to have “Chicago” and “Fire” removed from the band across our shirts and replaced with Best Buy, understood pretty clearly the economic imperative for the team and league.

Of course, it’s likely that the announcement of American company AON Corp’s £80 million four-year shirt sponsorship with Manchester United is what’s really driving this interest at the level of the New York Knicks, rather than Columbus’ $1M a year deal with Glidden — though the Galaxy’s Beckham-driven $49 million deal with Herbalife is nothing to be sneezed at.

It’s interesting to note that it was a similar economic imperative in a time of crisis that first drove shirt sponsorship in Europe to widespread acceptance in the 1980s. In England, it was the sharp economic crisis with attendance and income plummetting and rising wages that meant sponsorship was accepted as a necessity for survival, after some protracted wrangling with television companies. Interestingly, in a similar vein to MLS as a smaller league testing the waters for the NFL/NBA, it was semi-professional Kettering Town who first took a shirt sponsor, before the big boys followed. In 1981, Arsenal struck the big time first with a £500,000 deal with electronics company JVC, a massive sum in those days.

American sports traditionalists will be aghast that NBA teams may soon have Sony or whatever across their chests, having long scoffed at European teams’ ad-laden shirts. But with season ticket renewals hurting and a slashed salary cap in the NBA reflecting tougher times, many fans may end up quietly sitting on their hands and accepting the marketplace imperative in a league facing increasing global competition for players in the decades ahead.

Another piece of sport’s cultural space looks liable to fall to the market as shirt sponsorship seems inexorable in sports worldwide — with the odd and valuable exception of a fan-owned club like FC United of Manchester, where the members who own the club decide whether or not to accept a shirt sponsor. It seems like outside these rare exceptions, all fans seem likely do is shrug and for those who object, increase their purchases of vintage, non-sponsored jerseys

Comments are closed.