Saturday / July 21 / 2012
bill velasco

The NBA is going to allow advertising on actual game jerseys worn by its players beginning the 2013 – 2014 season. That makes the title of this piece actually moot. Whether we like it or not, the ads intrude onto the clean traditional jerseys of all the league's players as part of their official uniforms. Historically, all the league's greatest moments captured in photographs or on video have no distractions on the jerseys.

Some fans will probably object initially, considering the NBA has never done this before. But will their complaints outweigh their enjoyment of the games? I doubt it. It has been done in football leagues all over the world, and in professional basketball in Australia. NASCAR, the sport of the masses in the US, has corporate patches everywhere, and even its cars are plastered with advertising. Besides, even the venues for NBA games are built by corporate sponsors precisely for recall and exposure of their brands. The idea that the NBA is "selling out" is a vague intangible. The league needs to stay financially viable without substantially changing the game itself. The uniforms supposedly have no impact on the game.

The bottom line is that the NBA is a private enterprise, a business investment for its team owners. The league is constantly searching for revenue streams to keep the league fiscally healthy. Three years ago, some teams in smaller markets faced financial challenges. The last season was shortened by a lockout. All those events impact income from traditional sources. And when the league needs to earn more, it leans towards passing the burden on to the fans by increasing the prices of tickets and merchandising. Having more sources of advertising means less likelihood of the average Joe spending more at games.

There is, however, a sticky situation that will develop. What if the marquee player on a team endorses a rival product? How would the sponsor react? It adds a complication that players will be photographed and recorded on video wearing a rival brand, but the twist is that they will also be earning from it, since half of the league's Basketball Related Income from jersey sponsorships also go to the players. Remember also that sports brand Adidas has a contract with the NBA that already allows them to sell jerseys of players regardless of their individual endorsement deals. Those retailed jerseys have the Adidas logo on them. Actual game jerseys do not. But Adidas also makes warm-ups and track suits for all players with their branding on them. New ads on game-day jerseys may pose some new wrinkles in pre-existing agreements. Jerseys sold to the public will most probably not have the corporate ads, since that would be additional exposure not covered in deals with the NBA. However, not having them on the retail jersey may also lessen the "authenticity" of the item. The first question is if Adidas will lay claim to that piece of jersey real estate now being offered.

There is the further question of who has the right to get sponsors, and how to resolve potential conflict if the league and a team go after the same advertiser. Percentages and commissions will also have to be sorted out, depending on who acquires the sponsor. At the end of the day, the league will have the final say.

In the Philippines, the situation is the reverse. Professional teams in the Philippine Basketball Association are owned by large corporations, and the teams are given monikers based on products those companies make. Supplementary placements appear on the jerseys as patches advertising other sponsors, often subsidiaries owned by the team's mother corporations. The teams themselves are already advertising vehicles for companies owned by prominent businessmen who love basketball. Broadcasts are essentially two-hour commercials.

As of now, the discussion revolves around a 2" x 2" patch on the "shoulder" of the jersey. League projections place the possible income in the introductory 2013-2014 season at $ 100 million. I think that may be something of an overestimation. The advertisers would have to calculate how many people at live games and on television actually see the patch and how much recall and actual purchases it may generate. Will replica jerseys and t-shirts also have the obtrusive patches? The WNBA already opened the door to jersey advertising in 2009 to little objection.

Years ago, I watched an Australian National Basketball League game, and was fascinated that the team's jerseys were studded with ads. Even the court, the three-second area and in one instance, the backboard had logos on them. Practically any flat surface had advertising on it. Every open inch of real estate had value. I don't think the NBA would ever go that far, though. But I would be interested to see the reactions if a player one day decides to tattoo a brand on his exposed shoulder or somewhere else.

The NBA has given itself one year to sort out all the possible legal entanglements, find sponsors, create appropriate packages and campaigns, and have Adidas actually make the jerseys. In that span, they may also condition the fans to accept a necessary evil that wasn't necessary in days gone by.

Follow this writer on Twitter @billvelasco.

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