Retail

Rise Of The Human Billboards

If you’re not a diehard soccer fan (we hate to generalize but, in all likelihood, that probably also means you’re an American), you might find it difficult to determine the name of a professional team simply by looking at the players’ jerseys.

Is “Fly Emirates” a team? How about “Yokohama Tyres” (and did they misspell “tires” there)? There’s one that clearly says “Chevrolet,” so that’s obviously the team’s name.

No, no (no; that’s the British spelling) and no. Despite being placed front and center on jerseys, those are actually the brand names (or slogan, in Emirates’ case) that sponsor teams whose actual names are Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC and Manchester United, respectively, all members of the English Premier League. (“FC” stands for “football club,” by the way — and we figured that out even before looking it up to confirm.)

“Fine,” might say the average American (i.e., non-soccer fan) who might have had those names wrong all along, if he ever gave them much thought at all. “That’s a foreign country, and they don’t even call the sport by the right name. No way American professional soccer teams have brand names bigger than their actual team names on their shirts.”

Tell that to the “Barbasol,” the “Bimbo” and the “Xbox,” doubtful American. Those brand names enjoy central placement on the jerseys of Major League Soccer (MLS) teams Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union and Seattle Sounders, respectively — all based in your own country.

“Whatever,” Joe America might continue, thoughtfully. “Like I told you, soccer is weird. You’ll never see any player in a real sport in America with a sponsor on his jersey. They only do that stuff to the cars in NASCAR.”

They sure do, Joe. And by “real” sports, we presume you are referring to what are widely considered to be the four “major” U.S. sports: football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

We hope you’re sitting down, Joe … because, although it’s true that none of the uniforms worn by players in those professional sports currently bear any sponsorship logos, one of them — basketball — is coming off that list next year.

Earlier this week, the Philadelphia 76ers announced that its team jersey will be the first in major American professional sports to include an advertisement for a third-party company. Beginning in the 2016–2017 NBA season, the Sixers’ logo (in all variants) will retain its usual place on the players’ jerseys … but it will also be joined, on the upper left, by a patch bearing the name of the online ticket marketplace StubHub.

You’re looking woozy, Joe … don’t pass out. Otherwise, you’ll miss this very brand-y statement on the matter from Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil:

“This marks another groundbreaking first for the Philadelphia 76ers and StubHub. Our brands are now inextricably linked as we create lifelong memories for our fans in Philadelphia and around the world. Our partnership with StubHub continues to generate progressive and forward-thinking platforms created to improve the fan experience and advance our industry. The essence of our relationship with StubHub is our shared culture and ambition to innovate, which drives us to reimagine traditional partnership activation and continually ask, ‘What if?’”

You hear that, Joe? “What if?” What if what the Sixers are doing becomes the norm, and within a few years, every team in every major U.S. sport includes advertisements on its uniform’s front, back, legs, sleeves (where applicable) and/or helmet (ditto)? Would that necessarily represent some kind of stain on the ostensible purity of professional athletic competition, being plundered — as many fans online seem to feel, as Uproxx shares — by nefarious corporate interests?

Hup — Joe has fainted. We’ll continue nonetheless.

The reality is that corporate branding is all over professional sports in the U.S. already, and it has been for quite some time. Practically every inch of available space at most pro stadiums and ballparks is slathered in advertisements — including the very names of the venues themselves — and sporting events are veritable meccas for promotion and sales of third-party brands, both on television and in person.

Even the jerseys worn by players in a game haven’t been wholly exempt in this regard: NFL uniforms already bear the Nike swoosh and, last summer, the NBA brokered a deal that will allow the same beginning in 2017 (after Adidas’ contract with the league expires).

While some U.S. sports fans might not like it, selling ads on jerseys — just as they do in effectively every other area of their events — stands to be a massive revenue stream for the four major sports’ governing bodies. Back in 2011, then-Deputy Commissioner of the NBA Adam Silver (he’s now the commissioner) conservatively estimated that the practice could be worth $100 million annually. (In Europe, as Forbes shares, those aforementioned soccer jersey sponsors will bring the country’s top leagues a cool $930 million.)

Suffice it to say, for any retail brand with an interest (and, more importantly, the means) to one day follow StubHub’s lead and get its own name on professional sports uniforms that may be hesitant due to negative response from consumers, it’s very much worth the risk.

Sports fans might not be happy about it, but — given that they are sports fans — they will very likely continue to attend sporting events, make purchases at and related to sporting events and even do business with the very brands that are getting their name out on players’ jerseys.

Just don’t tell Joe when he wakes up.

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