There is nothing more sacred in sports than a team’s uniform. It is the instantly recognizable garment that binds together players and fans from disparate places and backgrounds. It’s the beloved laundry that dictates emotions, logic, and allegiances. It’s game-day garb that . . . is soon to be advertising space for sale in the NBA.
Coming soon to an NBA game near you: product brand names mixed with team names. Perhaps you missed it, but on April 15, the day before the NBA playoffs commenced, the league announced that starting with the 2017-18 season, teams will be allowed to put advertising on their jerseys.
The three-year pilot program calls for a 2½-inch-by-2½-inch sponsorship patch to appear on the front left of NBA team uniforms. The teams will be responsible for procuring advertising partners for their soulless patch. The NBA believes the jersey ads could be a revenue source worth $100 million.
Players as product placement is an affront to basketball fans everywhere. We need to push back against it before ad creep re-creates NBA uniforms as basketball billboards. The NBA is the first of the so-called Big Four sports leagues to do this, but if there is no fan fury, it won’t be the last.
It’s acceptable for an athlete to tell me Nationwide is on his side. But Nationwide is on his jersey. Nope. There must be some safe space in sports where you’re not being pitched, prodded, or implored to buy something every second — a place where you can, you know, just enjoy the game.
I have nothing against advertising. Without it, there would be no Boston Globe. But the sports experience already involves being inundated with advertising. Every segment of a sports broadcast is sponsored. Stadiums and arenas sport the names of airlines, banks, and energy companies. There is ubiquitous signage inside the venues, whispering sweet nothings to your wallet.
Putting ads on the jerseys is going too far. These uniforms ads will be gauche and garish, and it’s just the beginning. This is NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the owners floating a trial balloon. If there is no indignation or outrage, the jersey ads will get more conspicuous and shameless.
Eventually, “NBA” could stand for “National Basketball Advertising” or “National Billboard Association.” An NBA player like Hassan Whiteside, who led the league in blocks this season, would give a whole new meaning to the term “ad blocker.” The game would have stop-and-pop jumpers and walking pop-up ads.
Instead of “Boston” or “Celtics,” you will see “Geico” plastered across the Green. The small patch will be the team logo, and it will be the corporate-sponsor branding splashed across the front of the jersey. (An NBA spokesman said this isn’t being contemplated or discussed for jerseys.)
Hyperbole you say?
It’s reality in the WNBA, where some team names are merely the fine print of an ad. The WNBA has allowed jersey advertising since 2009. It was the basketball beta test for the NBA.
You have to squint to see the Connecticut Sun logo on the team’s uniforms. If you didn’t know better, you would think the team is the Connecticut Frontier. That’s the name splashed across the front of the jersey in big, bold letters. But that’s the Sun’s sponsor — Frontier Communications.
NBA teams already can sell ad space on their practice uniforms. The league’s developmental league, known as the D-League, allowed jersey ads in 2010. The Erie Bayhawks of the D-League have their name above the jersey number on the front and a large sponsor name below.
The NBA is not stopping with patches, people. This is just the beginning of sartorial sacrilege.
Now, I know there are fans of soccer, auto racing, and golf who are asking what the fuss is about. Those sports are suffused with advertising.
An auto racing driver’s car and firesuit look like a child’s commercial collage. Golfers have sponsors on their attire and their bags. Sponsorships on soccer jerseys, or “kits” as the Brits say, are customary in club soccer, including Major League Soccer, the top American/Canadian league.
If you watch Manchester United play in the English Premier League, you’ll have a much easier time reading the Chevrolet insignia than the club’s famous crest.
But soccer doesn’t have in-game clock stoppages for commercials like the other major team sports. Jersey ads were a way to keep the games that way. It’s because of soccer’s popularity that European sports are amenable to ads on jerseys in other team sports, like basketball.
During an auto race, you don’t see a driver’s firesuit as often as you do a player’s jersey during a game. The car, an inanimate object, is the primary billboard.
The proliferation of corporate emblems in golf is distracting. However, golf is an individual sport, and the individual athletes are benefitting from the sponsorships.
For the NBA, this is Gordon Gekko greed meets the Geico Gecko. The NBA doesn’t need this new revenue stream. The league has a new, nine-year, $24 billion television deal that kicks in next season. The league nearly tripled its yearly television revenue under this new deal.
If the Golden State Warriors are going to tell Steph Curry he can put his own sponsor on his jersey and keep all the money, then we can compare this NBA initiative to golf. Both the TV money and the jersey ads count as Basketball Related Income, which, per the CBA, is split 50-50 between teams and the players.
North American team sports are supposed to be about representing the name or the logo on the front of the uniform, but if that name or insignia belongs to Papa John’s or Kia, does it still hold the same meaning?
Thankfully, there will be some prohibitions on NBA uniform branding, according to ESPN. Alcohol and tobacco producers, gambling entities, political messages, media companies, and competitors of Nike, which will manufacture the jerseys, are all verboten.
The swoosh is sacred, after all — at least something on the uniform is.
Both the NBA’s new jersey ads and its priorities are misplaced.