As the NBA moves closer to allowing corporate advertising patches on game jerseys, there has been a commonly repeated refrain that goes something like this: "Sure, we've seen the major-level pro leagues put advertising on practice jerseys, All-Star jerseys and skills competition jerseys, but they've never used uniform ads in regular-season games. That would be unprecedented!"
That's almost true -- but not quite.
On four separate occasions -- in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 -- Major League Baseball opened its season by having a pair of teams play a two-game series in Japan. And in each case, the teams wore corporate advertising on their jersey sleeves and batting helmets. Even the New York Yankees, who've opted out of many other uniform trends and programs, and whose uniforms are commonly thought to be sacrosanct, went ahead and wore the uniform ads when they played in Japan.
Many fans and reporters seem to have forgotten about this, maybe because the timing of these games was unusual. They were played about a week before the other 28 MLB teams started their seasons and while most American fans were either asleep or just waking up. But they were official regular-season games -- they counted in the standings and in the statistical races, just like NFL games played in London -- and therefore provide a little taste of what uniform advertising might look like if it comes to the NBA or any of the other major pro leagues.
Here's a case-by-case look at these four season-opening series and their featured advertisers:
2000: The New York Mets and Chicago Cubs became the first MLB teams to play regular-season games in Japan. Both teams wore sleeve patches featuring the logo of AIU Insurance and helmet decals with the logo of the AM/PM convenience store chain.
For season-opening series in Japan in 2000, Mets & Cubs wore ads for AIU Insurance (on sleeve) and AM/PM (helmet). pic.twitter.com/jfM5EGRclS— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) February 29, 2016
2004: Only one advertiser this time around, as the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays wore the logo of the Japanese electronics company Ricoh on their sleeves and batting helmets.
When opening the regular season w/ 2 games in Japan in 2004, Yanks & Devil Rays wore Ricoh ads on sleeve and helmet. pic.twitter.com/L8tOEQxb6W— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) February 29, 2016
One additional uni-centric note regarding this series: The Devil Rays were the home team for these games (they batted last, had only 79 remaining home dates after these games, and so on), yet the Yankees wore their home uniforms. Why? Because MLB wanted Japanese fans to be able to see those iconic Yankee pinstripes (although they looked a lot less iconic when festooned with Ricoh ads). A pretty crummy way to treat the Devil Rays.
2008: With the Oakland A's and Boston Red Sox traveling to Japan to open the season, Ricoh once again advertised on the batting helmets. There were two new sleeve advertisers, though: Pepsi for the A's and the data-management company EMC for the Red Sox.
2008 regular season opener in Japan: Ricoh ads on helmets. Sleeves have ads for EMC (Red Sox) and Pepsi (A's). pic.twitter.com/uzHziG4g48— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) February 29, 2016
Closer look at Red Sox sleeve and helmet ads from 2008 regular season opener in Japan. pic.twitter.com/xCLozkHf0d— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) February 29, 2016
2012: The A's returned to Japan, this time accompanied by the Seattle Mariners. The logo of the Japanese social app developer Gloops appeared on both teams' helmets and Oakland's sleeves, while Seattle's sleeves featured a Boeing ad.
2012 regular season opener in Japan: Social app developer Gloops advertises on helmets and A's sleeves. pic.twitter.com/q81QgdVzXn— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) February 29, 2016
2012 regular season opener in Japan: Mariners wear a Boeing ad on their sleeves. pic.twitter.com/m7qW7EGOv4— Paul Lukas (@UniWatch) February 29, 2016
Section 3.03(j) of the MLB rulebook specifically prohibits "patches or designs relating to commercial advertisements," so how did they get away with all of these uniform ads? MLB officials have never given a coherent explanation, but it appears to have been a "when in Rome" thing (or, if you prefer, "when in Tokyo"): Uniform advertising is common in Japanese baseball, so MLB was simply doing things the Japanese way.
In any case, these games have given us a peek at what it would look like for our familiar team uniforms -- the ones we root for and against every day, not practice or All-Star jerseys -- to carry advertising graphics. Would it be the end of the world? No. But does it look good? Also no.
More importantly, it doesn't feel good. Team uniforms already stand for a brand -- the brand of the team. That's why they're so powerful and why we keep rooting for a uni no matter who's wearing it. That's a unique form a brand loyalty, one that shouldn't be sullied by the presence of another company's logo. Here's hoping any future use of uniform ads, whether by MLB, the NBA or any other league, is once again limited to games when most fans are asleep.
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Paul Lukas will have more to say about uniform ads if and when the NBA takes the plunge. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. 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.