Maybe Friday, April 15, 2016, will be remembered as the day the NBA sold out. Maybe it’ll live on in infamy, because today, the NBA announced that its board of governors approved a three-year trial period for advertisements on its new Nike jerseys, beginning with the 2017-18 season.
But I personally don’t think either of those things will happen. Instead, as a longtime soccer fan, I think today be vaguely remembered as the day the NBA thrust itself into the modern global sports economy. Many NBA fans are claiming right now that the “integrity” of the league — the same league that survived the 2007 referee betting scandal — will be tainted forever. But the “integrity” argument misses the point: NBA jerseys have always been advertisements, and if anything, the league should be lauded for adopting sponsored patches in a less noticeable way than many soccer teams already have.
That’s not a very popular opinion though:
The ads, coming in the form of 2.5-by-2.5-inch patches to be located on the front left of game jerseys (opposite the NBA logo), will generate about $150 million for the league in annual revenue, according to Bloomberg. That’s a lot of money, and an economically healthy league is a happy one. Nevertheless, fans are visibly upset, and they’ve found a target to hit on: Soccer.
The Kid Mero is probably right to think soccer played some role here. Soccer clubs were the first sports teams to slap sponsorships onto their uniforms, and after half-century of doing so, it’s become standard practice, evidently to the envy of NBA owners. Advertisements on soccer jerseys go all the way back to the ‘50s, when Uruguayan club Peñarol put sponsor logos on jerseys to keep the lights on. Across every major European league, fans, officials and teams resisted the idea of allowing companies to buy advertising space on their jerseys. By the ‘70s though, leagues saw bright light of additional revenue without damaging their product, and relented.
Realistically speaking, NBA fans have been buying jerseys with advertisements since the beginning of NBA jersey retail. A team’s jersey, whether it says “Knicks,” “Lakers,” or “Celtics” in its custom font, is inherently a wearable advertisement for the team. In soccer, and in the NBA’s near future, you’ll be buying a product that accentuates the team’s brand and functionally serves as a wearable billboard for whatever sponsorship is involved. Sure, a team name has a prideful, more emotive meaning to a fan than any corporation’s technocrat logo, but it’s branding nonetheless. Otherwise, the Knicks would just take the court in blue tank tops and shorts with orange trim. And that’s lame.
Team identity is key for any wearer of an NBA jersey, but don’t fret: Having a teeny-tiny sponsorship logo won’t impact that whatsoever. Viewing from a desktop device, just look at how damn small that 2.5-by-2.5-inch advertisement patch will be:
It’s a minimal piece of design. Compared to soccer jerseys, it’s barely noticeable. And despite the massive logos on soccer jerseys, they’re still aesthetically pleasing — soccer jerseys are trendy in fashion right now, corporate logo emblazoned across the front and all.
My editor, a die-hard Lakers fan with the mind of a grumpy ‘30s newspaperman, argues that this will only be the beginning of corporations overrunning NBA jerseys with their spew. How long until the “Lakers” lettering on the front is replaced by “Tesla” You know, like in soccer? Um, probably never.
For one, soccer teams have badges on the upper left of each shirt to identify the club. Each NBA team has their own custom fonts across their jerseys — fonts that cost lots of money to design and are essential to the team’s brand. And when it comes to deciding whether the team’s name or something else gets the most real estate on a jersey, the team will always err to protecting its preexisting, billion-dollar brand. Looking at the jersey’s relationship between team branding and advertisements, the NBA is actually doing the reverse of what soccer teams have done, and isn’t that better, Mr. Mad Fan?
Still salty? Don’t be: The sponsor patches will literally have no effect on how you consume NBA merchandise, because they won’t appear on the retail versions of player jerseys, unless the team decides to pop it on jerseys within their own retail outlets.
Nonetheless, I cannot wait to buy a New York Knicks Kristaps Porzingis jersey with a Taco Bell sponsor patch.