Don't expect uni ads anytime soon

Updated: April 12, 2012, 4:28 PM ET
By Paul Lukas | Page 2

Page 2 Branding IllustrationAdvertising might not hit major sports uniforms anytime soon, but this is how it could look.

The NBA Board of Governors is meeting Thursday and Friday, and one item on the agenda has been the subject of increasing speculation: the question of whether to allow advertising patches on NBA uniforms.

First, a quick reality check, because most of this speculation has been based on extremely tenuous evidence. It began with a March 5 article in SportsBusiness Journal, which said the issue "will be debated, if not voted on" at the Board of Governors meeting, and then concluded with a quote from Golden State COO Rick Welts, who suggested that the league might only put ads on warm-ups, not on game jerseys. That was followed three weeks later by a Ft. Worth Star-Telegram piece in which Mavericks owner Mark Cuban set off alarm bells by describing uniform ads as "an idea whose time has come." Soon media outlets across the sports world were producing Photoshopped slideshows of what a corporate-sponsored NBA might look like.

But if you look beyond all the hype and actually read those two articles, you're left with two takeaways:

[+] EnlargeMark Cuban
Michael Ansell/ABC via Getty ImagesMark Cuban says he'd like to see ads on sports team's unis.

1. The league will discuss the issue. Nothing new there -- it has been discussing it for years. But there's no indication of a groundswell of support for uniform ads, especially from the one man who matters most: NBA commissioner David Stern, who has always been fiercely protective of the league's core brands.

2. Mark Cuban likes to shoot his mouth off. Nothing new there, either, particularly on this topic. Cuban has been agitating for uniform ads at least since 2009, but even he acknowledges that Stern's opposition is an insurmountable roadblock. Cuban and others who are in favor of uniform ads like to say, "Get over it, it's inevitable," but they know that isn't true. If it were, they wouldn't need to say things like that -- they'd simply put the matter to a vote and we'd be seeing ads on Dirk Nowitzki's jersey by next fall. The reality is that Cuban and other pro-advertising voices are trying to create an air of inevitability. They hope if they say it often enough, it'll eventually be true -- a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But I don't see that happening, at least not now. Bank on it, people: The NBA will not be wearing advertising patches on game uniforms next season.

Still, that raises a larger issue: Should the NBA put advertising on its uniforms? And what about the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball?

[+] EnlargeIchiro
Chris McGrath/Getty ImagesBaseball has experimented with ad patches for its games in Japan.

That question tends to bring out strong opinions on each side. That's because the debate over uni ads is really a proxy for a series of larger, more charged questions. For example: Are there places where advertising simply doesn't belong? Are there things that we as a society have said are not for sale? Is there a difference between profit and greed? Is owning a major-level sports team a public trust? If so, what sorts of responsibilities accrue to ownership?

Before we address those questions, let's set the stage. The first thing to understand is that aside from the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB -- the Big Four, we'll call them -- almost all other major-level professional team sports around the world have uniform ads, including Japanese and South American baseball; Canadian football; European hockey; Australian rules football; and the international soccer, cricket and rugby circuits. The Big Four's ad-free uniforms are like the National League not using the DH: They're literally the last holdouts on earth.

Not only that, but uniform advertising has been quietly lapping at the shores of the American sports scene. Ad patches now appear on NBA practice jerseys and NFL practice jerseys, and in lower-level sports such as minor league hockey, the WNBA, MLS and MLL. And MLB has dabbled with uniform ads all four times it has staged season-opening games in Japan.

Hmm, given all of that, uniform ads for the Big Four do seem pretty inevitable, no?

Well, maybe. I happen to think uni ads are still a long way off -- at least a decade, and maybe a lot longer. I've set up a hypothetical back-and-forth debate to explain why -- and why I hope I'm right.

[+] EnlargeRobin van Persie
Stuart MacFarlane/Getty ImagesArsenal's Robin Van Persie and other well-known soccer players are no strangers to jersey advertising.

Hey, before we get started on that, you forgot to mention that NASCAR drivers wear ad patches, too!

They sure do. For that matter, so do American boxers, tennis players and golfers. But that's an apples-to-oranges comparison, because those are all individual athletes competing in individual sports. They don't play under the larger visual umbrella of a team uniform, so they don't really apply to this discussion. We're talking about ads on team jerseys here.

Well, speaking of team jerseys, soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and soccer teams all have jersey sponsors.

True enough, but soccer is unique because the televised games have no commercials, so the teams need to make up that revenue with uniform ads. It's another case of apples and oranges.

OK. But like you said, most sports teams around the world have ads on their uniforms. Why shouldn't the Big Four do it? It's called marketing and free enterprise.

Yes, thank you, we all realize what it is. But not all marketing is appropriate marketing. And just because you can sell something that doesn't necessarily mean you should sell it. There are certain things, for example, that are illegal to sell (your vote, your kidney, your baby). Then there are transactions that are legal but in poor taste. If your town council wanted to sell ad space on the front door of City Hall, for example, it is within its rights to do that, but it would probably look ugly and it would send a terrible message, namely that our civic institutions are for sale to the highest bidder.

Now, I wouldn't put a sports uniform on the same level as City Hall. But after writing about uniforms for more than a dozen years now, it's pretty clear to me that there's something very special about the bond between a fan and his favorite team's uniform. It's an extremely intense form of brand loyalty: The players come and go, the team can be good one year and crummy the next, but the fan still roots for that uniform, no matter who's wearing it. That's a unique bond -- one that shouldn't be cheapened or sullied by the presence of an ad patch for a credit card. (And that's why ads on team uniforms are so different from ads worn by NASCAR drivers or golfers.)

As for why the Big Four should stay ad-free when the rest of the international sports world doesn't, consider it a nice example of American exceptionalism. And besides, the rest of the world is always accusing America of being too materialistic, too commercial. Our ad-free uniforms give us a rare chance to turn those accusations on their head.

Oh, please. Every other part of the game is already sponsored, so why not the uniform?

Good question, but here's a better one: Every other part of the game is already sponsored, so why not keep the uniform as the one ad-free zone? Seriously, don't you cringe, or at least roll your eyes, every time you hear a broadcaster mention "the IBM keys to the game" or "the AT&T starting lineup"? (Heck, you can often hear the broadcaster cringing.) That jadedness, that cynical sense of, "Yeah, it's all about the money, but whaddaya gonna do," is precisely what sports doesn't need more of.

Look, I'm not trying to repeal every stadium naming-rights deal (well, maybe just one), and I'm not trying to create some idealized world where it's all peanuts and Cracker Jack. But I do think the uniform should be the one place where ads are off-limits.

[+] EnlargeSteelers fans
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesFranchises have a special bond with their cities, one that stretches well beyond business.

That's silly. If you have a salable commodity, like space on a jersey, you sell it. That's just good business.

But I'd argue that sports teams are more than just business entities -- they're also civic entities. They have the privilege of wearing the names of our cities on their chests; they unite their respective communities; they play in stadiums and arenas that are usually publicly owned and taxpayer-financed; they expect us to throw a parade for them when they win the big one; and so on. So I think, "It's just business," isn't a good enough reason to justify everything a team does, especially when it comes to something that literally unites generations of fans -- the uniform.

And again, not everything that can be sold should be sold. Whenever the uni advertising debate comes up, you hear proponents saying things like, "Don't worry, it can be done tastefully." And why do they keep saying that? Because they know deep down -- and, more importantly, they know everyone else knows -- that it can't be done tastefully. There's no tasteful way to sell out your core identity; there's no tasteful way to be greedy.

Maybe you feel that way, Mr. Purist, but most fans don't care.

With all due respect, I believe you are mistaken. For all the stereotypes about the beer-swilling, lunkhead sports fanatic, most American fans care a lot about sports tradition and heritage. Remember when MLB tried to put ads for "Spider-Man 2" on the bases back in 2004? Fan reaction was so immediate and so negative that MLB scrapped the idea. If they were upset about that, imagine how they'd feel about ads on their favorite team's jersey, especially in the age of Twitter. Hashtags like "#NoUniformAds" and "#UniAdsStink" would be trending within five minutes.

Moreover, people are increasingly frustrated by the relentless encroachment of advertising into every corner of their lives. When people in New Orleans woke up two weeks ago to find that Coca-Cola had plastered the city's sidewalks with ads connected to the Final Four, they went ballistic. Coke had to do a quick about-face and remove the ads.

What about when a Little League uniform is sponsored by Joe's Pizzeria or Chico's Bail Bonds? Are you opposed to that, too?

Not at all. There's a big difference between an independent local business supporting a cash-strapped youth league and a mega-corporation acting in concert with a major-level sports league. Again, it's all about what's appropriate and what's not.

2012 Seattle Seahawks Nike uniform
NikeSeahaws aside, Nike's changes to the NFL jerseys were pretty muted.

Yeah, whatever. But wake up come out from your fantasy world bubble and look around you -- we live in capitalist society in which everything's for sale. Uniform ads are inevitable.

You know, I've been hearing that at least since 1999, when MLB first floated the idea of wearing uniform ad patches. If it's so inevitable, how come it hasn't happened yet?

I think the Big Four -- a few incorrigibles such as Cuban notwithstanding -- understand that there's something special about the bond between fan and uniform. Need proof? Look no further than the NFL, where everyone expected Nike to go bonkers with the league's uniforms, but instead most teams made no changes of note.

That's the NFL. Can we get back to talking about the NBA, since it is the one that is going to be talking about uniform ads at its big meeting this week?

Sure. It's true that the NBA has shown more of a willingness to tinker with its uniforms than the other leagues. But a basketball uniform is a tough place to put a uniform ad, because there's so little real estate to work with. There are no sleeves, no caps or helmets, and even the shoulder area is minimal. Sponsors would never pay for an ad on the shorts, because that wouldn't get much camera time (picture a guy shooting a free throw -- they always show him from the waist up). So that leaves you with the chest. Are NBA kingpins really ready to put a cell phone company patch right next to their cherished team logos (or, worse, make the team brand subordinate to the larger sponsor brand)? I just don't see it happening.

You're such a hypocrite. Look at this web page that your article appears on -- it's full of ads! How can you be against advertising when it pays your salary?

But I've never said I'm opposed to advertising; I'm just opposed to advertising where it doesn't belong. This article you're reading -- like most of the content on -- is available for free. The only way to make that work financially is to sell advertising, which has been a standard media business model for centuries. But sports teams already have lots of revenue streams -- ticket sales, TV rights, merchandising, concessions, arena naming rights and so on. Do they really need the revenue from uniform ads? I don't think so.

The owners might not need the extra money, but the revenue would trickle down to the fans in the form of cheaper tickets and concessions.

Ah, yes, those magnanimous team owners, the same philanthropists who charge eight bucks for a beer and make their most loyal customers pay for personal seat licenses. Yup, they'd no doubt share their good fortune with the fans. Sounds plausible to me!

[+] EnlargeHeat
Issac Baldizon/Getty ImagesIf ads hit North American uniforms, the Heat's name might just be erased from their jerseys.

OK, even if the owners don't share the wealth, small-market teams need this extra revenue to stay competitive.

Actually, uniform ads would probably make the financial disparities between large- and small-market teams even worse. Let's say the NBA votes to have uni ads. Who do you think is going to be able to charge more for a jersey patch -- the Lakers or the Bucks? With uniform ads, the rich just get richer.

Look, for all the fuss you're making, we're talking about a little patch that's just a few square inches.

Personally, I think that's bad enough. But do you really think it would stop there? Sponsorship culture is like a ratchet screw -- it only goes in one direction. First you have the Miami Heat wearing a Brand X patch, then you have "the Miami Heat, Presented by Brand X," then "the Brand X Heat," then "the Miami Brand Xes." The best way to avoid all of that is to nip the whole thing in the bud now.

Come on, you're exaggerating. Stuff like that will never happen.

That's probably what you would have said 15 years ago if someone had told you the Peach Bowl would one day become the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Paul Lukas doesn't really care if the NBA puts ads on warm-ups because, you know, they're just warm-ups. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, 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.