Baseball legend and part-time philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.” It not only perfectly summarizes the longtime Yankee legend’s exuberance and devil-may-care attitude, but also represents the idea that we’re faced with an innumerable amount of tough decisions, and right or wrong, a choice has to be made. As the World Cup plays out in Brazil, it’s hard to ignore that these fútbol Adonises serve as two proverbial “forks.” They are both integral cogs in a sports machine looking to capture athletic immortality and ignite fanbases, but also are running, jumping and sliding billboards for brands. While national team kits are more centered on regional pride, even casual football fans are aware that at the club level, a game can feel like a rivalry between two brands that aren’t even in the same retail space.
As of 2010, the 20 teams that make up the Barclays English Premier League generated $155 million dollars by selling ad space on their jerseys. For the Champions League final in Lisbon between Real Madrid and Atlético Madrid, an estimated 380 million viewers looked on as sponsors like Emirates and the oil-rich Eastern European country of Azerbaijan cashed in on deals that cost Emirates $200 million (over five years) and Azerbaijan $15 million dollars annually. Was it worth it? That’s debatable. But with no end in sight, the question now becomes: when will the other major American sports league like the NFL, NBA and MLB get on board?
Outspoken NBA owner Mark Cuban said in an exchange with Ad Age, “It’s definitely on the horizon. I think it’s more an issue of ‘how much’ rather than ‘if’ [it happens].” While no one has jumped in with both feet and become the first to ditch team nicknames or cities sprawled across a player’s chest, Cuban has set the mark for what it will take. “Find me a multi-year deal at $10 million or more per year and I will make it happen.” The NBA is no stranger to attempting to kickstart an already thriving merchandising sector with new rounds of jerseys. First there were alternates which didn’t immediately strike fans as cash grabs but rather a sartorial invigoration for teams that would never completely abandon legacy designs, but as recent as this year, things like nickname jerseys, Noche Latina jerseys that pit El Heat vs. Los Spurs, and jerseys with sleeves from adidas seem like the league is trying everything in their power to move product without having to surrender to advertisers. One could surmise that the addition of sleeves is actually a subtle way to introduce real estate for potential sponsorships that won’t be as jarring as placing them front and center. Additionally, the recent unveiling of the new Charlotte Hornets uniforms show the NBA logo silhouette on the back – a change that will be mimicked by every other team and one that a league official calls a “stylistic move” – but many assume it’s a means to insert ads on the front.
Newly-minted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver threw out the five-year figure while speaking at the IMG World Congress of Sports in regards to advertising and jersey placement. “It just creates that much more of an opportunity for our marketing partners to get that much closer to our fans and to our players. It gives us an opportunity just to have deeper integration when it comes those forms of sponsorship.” Much like how brands are feeling inclined to integrate products into actual television shows because of our ability to fast forward because of DVR, in-game advertising can be viewed the same way. In 2011, as deputy commissioner, Silver said putting logos on jerseys would be worth about $100 million a year to the league. As it stands, the current idea for the NBA is to allow a single patch for each team – with each sponsor patch being 2½ inches by 2½ inches.
More than $230 million in advertising money is up for grabs if teams let sponsors buy space on NFL jerseys, according to a study by media analysts Horizon Media done in 2011. While the NFL has arguably become America’s true past time, many clammer for additional ways for teams to make money outside of official sponsorships that clutter an already stop-and-go style of broadcast. Consider this: According to a Wall Street Journal study of four broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes. Thus, commercials take up about an hour – and “as many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps.” If advertisers could get their fix without cutting away to commercials, a game could certainly draw more interest to casual fans if the length was two hours and 30 minutes, rather than three hours and 15 minutes.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it no secret that he wants to expand the NFL’s reach to include Europe – with London the most obvious choice given its experience hosting actual regular season action. With European sporting sensibilities more geared toward non-stop action thanks to the way a soccer broadcast is handled, his best bet at global relevance is to find a way to make the NFL feel more like a game fans are already familiar with. As Grantland notes, “The Premier League is the only competition on the planet that the NFL looks at longingly, at least in terms of scope: While the NFL can sell media rights in North America, the Premier League can sell the right to broadcast its games to literally hundreds of countries around the globe. If the NFL really wants to hit $25 billion in revenue per year, it’ll probably need to make its imprint larger.”
Perhaps the NFL has struck a happy medium. Beginning in 2009, they allowed 3 1/2 by 4 1/2 inch patches to be placed on official practice jerseys. While not quite the same gusto as seeing Ford or Apple on Sundays, in today’s ESPN/24-hour-sports cycle, these companies are certainly getting the national exposure they lust for. “It is, at least, a test of fan reaction to it,” said Bettina Cornwell, professor of marketing and sports management at the University of Michigan. “I’m sure [the league] is mulling over the future and how to make the most of the potential change. Times are tough, admittedly, and the search for new revenue streams is understandable. On the other hand, economic pressures may allow acceptable justification for introducing a practice that has been waiting in the wings for decades.”
When Major League Baseball tried to incorporate branding into baseball without using uniforms as a means, it completely blew up in their faces. In 2004, the league struck a promotion with Columbia Picture to place emblems on the bases to drum up anticipation for Spider-Man 2 during games between June 11 – 13. The plan crumbled when the New York Yankees said they would only allow the ads on bases during batting practice – and only for one game that weekend. Commissioner Bud Selig said, “I’m a traditionalist. The problem in sports marketing, particularly in baseball, is you’re always walking a very sensitive line. Nobody loves tradition and history as much as I do.” U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, a Washington republican and former minor league owner, reportedly sent a letter to Selig chastising the new use of space for advertising – saying, “Little Leaguers deserve to see their heroes slide into bases, not ads.”
As of right now, baseball seems to be the one league completely against altering any form of their uniforms in hopes of garnering additional revenue. “You learn never to say never, but you know, with us, uniforms are really important,” Selig said in an interview with ESPN Radio. But then again, baseball purists couldn’t imagine a scenario where instant replay/technology would be a part of the game either. In that same interview Selig said, “When I say there’s no appetite for further replay, I wasn’t kidding. There’s none.”
The Bottom Line
Many believe that the more ingrained a team’s logo is in the proverbial consciousness of popular culture, the harder it will be for a team to include advertising. But for those who found themselves included in the big four sports in North America due to expansion, their history is still written in pencil rather than ink – thus being a part of history as it relates to commerce as opposed to lore could realistically make the first domino fall. According to Business Week, “Last year, Nike spent $2.7 billion – one in every 10 dollars it collected – on what it calls ‘demand creation,’ lucrative deals to keep its products on such stars as LeBron James and every player in the NFL.” Look no further than their 10-year renewal with Manchester United for a billion dollars as a sign of the times. Brands are willing to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars. Many assumed Yogi Berra was referring to geography when he spoke those famous philosophical words, but perhaps he was talking economics.
See the rest of our World Cup Month features here.