Is this the slippery slope of uniforms?

Originally Published: June 2, 2009
By Paul Lukas | Page 2

Uni Watch

LifeLock, the company run by that guy who loves telling everyone his Social Security number, is in the business of protecting against identity theft. How ironic, then, that LifeLock has just stolen the identity of a professional basketball team.

That's the takeaway from a Monday press conference during which LifeLock was introduced as the new marketing partner for the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury. When the team's season begins this weekend, their jerseys will no longer say "Phoenix" or "Mercury"; instead, they'll carry the LifeLock logo as a chest insignia at home and on the road. The Mercury's "M" logo will be present as a small patch, but make no mistake: Visually speaking, this is now Team LifeLock.

There are two obvious reactions to have here:

1. Advertising on uniforms is always a bad idea.

2. Yeah, but it's only the WNBA, so what's the big deal?

It's tempting to just leave it at that, but the Mercury's move raises a lot of interesting questions. Let's take a look at some of them:

[+] EnlargeCappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Phoenix Mercury have ditched the team's name on their jerseys in favor of sponsor "LifeLock."

Are other WNBA teams exploring similar deals?

Yes. One of them may be announced as early as this week.

So is the idea to have the entire league end up with sponsored jerseys?

As one league official explained it to me, the idea "is for each team to do what's best for that team." Translation: Any team that can score such a deal is likely to do so.

Why did the Mercury choose LifeLock?

For one thing, LifeLock is headquartered in Arizona, so there's a local angle. Also, research shows that 60 percent of the victims of identity theft are women, so this sponsorship plays to the league's fan base. On the other hand, LifeLock is almost synonymous with its founder, Todd Davis. So now every time fans see a Mercury jersey, they're going to think of a man -- probably not the ideal association for a women's basketball league, but you can't have everything.

I don't really care about the WNBA, but I do care about advertising appearing on major-level sports uniforms. Is this the first step down that slippery slope?

More like the latest step. Remember, advertising has already appeared on MLB uniforms for season-opening games in Japan, the NFL is exploring the use of ad patches on practice uniforms, and there have been other small loopholes in the four major leagues' ban on uniform advertising.

OK, but does the NBA plan to do something like this for the men's teams?

The league's party line is "Not at this time." You know they'd love to do it if they thought they could get away with it, but they realize there'd probably be too big an outcry (much like there was when MLB tried to sell the bases to promote a movie a few years back). Pulling this type of deal with a young, low-profile league like the WNBA is one thing; doing it with long-established team brands like the Celtics and the Spurs would be something else.

I don't see what the big fuss is about uniform advertising anyway. European teams do it all the time, don't they?

Yes, the NBA folks have been quick to cite that example while promoting the Mercury deal. What they fail to mention, however, is that most of those European sports have fewer TV timeouts and commercials during their game broadcasts, because they use the jersey revenue in place of television sponsorships. It's hard to imagine a North American league making that same trade-off. And even if they would, do you really want your favorite team to look like this or this?

Well, business is business, right?

Sure, at least to the extent that sports teams are business entities. But the case can be made that teams are also civic entities -- that's why we care about them so much. They carry the names of our cities and states (well, until they strike a jersey-sponsorship deal), we rally around them, we live and die with them. Moreover, most of them have gotten big tax breaks and/or play in facilities that were built with public money, so the public has a stake in their behavior -- a stake that goes beyond the bottom line of the accounting ledger. Simply selling off the team's jersey sends a terrible message that our civic institutions are for sale. Bottom line: Just because you can sell something doesn't mean you should sell it.

The WNBA notwithstanding, do deals like this represent the future of sports uniforms?

Probably not. Small advertising patches will probably gain a small foothold for certain special events, but it's hard to imagine the major sports leagues, with the long-established team heritages, selling out for full-blown jersey sponsorships.

Now that they've got this LifeLock partnership, will the Mercury players change their uniform numbers to their Social Security numbers?


Paul Lukas thinks there's nothing wrong with advertising as long as it stays where it belongs (i.e., off of uniforms). His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.