Years ago, back when I was still in high school, I was really into Adbusters and Naomi Klein and signed up for a course called Media Studies, taught by a new teacher called Ms. Bell, who was the kind of person who used to reprimand people for buying shirts with logos on them: why would you pay to be a billboard, she’d ask them, it’s supposed to go the other way around.
I thought of her when I heard about the NBA’s plan to put ads on jerseys.
The NBA’s plan is to out a small sponsor logo on the uniform, a patch “inches above the heart”, as a Bloomberg report so colorfully puts it. That report estimates these patches will bring in something like $100 million a season, which is pretty good money but nothing compared to some deals the NBA already has in place. Both TNT and ESPN pay over $900 million a year for broadcasting rights, for instance.
And it’s not exactly like the league is hemorrhaging money, either: 15 teams lost money in the 2010-11 season, but the collective bargaining agreement shifted revenue towards owners, meaning they’re not really out that much. So it’s not exactly as if the league needs this patch money, but who ever turned down free cash?
The reaction to this has been surprising to me: a blatantly unscientific poll on Bleacher Report has over 75 per cent of people against it, saying the NBA is “selling out,” a phrase I’m sure I understand in this context: how can someone making mega amounts of cash be not selling out? And the Bleacher Report article raises a good point: teams already play in million-dollar arenas named after corporate sponsors.
But it goes a little deeper than that, and I’m not sure people quite realize it.
Jack McCallum’s new history on the Dream Team repeats a story about Michael Jordan I’ve been fascinated by since I first heard about it years ago: when the team won gold, they were required to go to the podium wearing a certain jacket, part of a sponsorship deal. Reebok made the jackets and Jordan is a Nike guy. Jordan resolved this situation with an artfully clever solution, draping a flag over his shoulder and covering up the logo Reebok had so thoughtfully placed in a prominent spot.
Anybody who thinks that jersey-making companies don’t place their logo in a conspicuous spot is kidding nobody. The NBA has it’s logo on one shoulder, in a spot where it’s sure to be in every photo. The NHL likewise has one right at the neck of the jersey. If you buy a jersey, be it a Dream Team throwback or a Tyreke Evans road jersey, there’s a little logo on the other shoulder. You may not notice it, but you’re already advertising a company when you wear one.
In advertising, there’s a concept called effective frequency. Essentially, it expresses the number of times somebody needs to see an ad before it takes effect. My favorite take is Thomas Smith’s from 1885, which says it’ll take 20 views. Simply put, just seeing an ad once isn’t effective.
The NBA isn’t the first league to put ads on jerseys. It’s a staple in Europe, where ads on the field and on the players take the place of commercial breaks. Here in North America, they’re just on players in the CFL and sometimes own entire soccer teams.
And here’s the rub: they didn’t mean the league sold out, they didn’t ruin the play. Honestly, they’re something one doesn’t even notice: last time I saw a CFL game in person, I couldn’t make out players nameplates, let alone a small patch. It works better on TV (where everything is already sponsored anyway) and even better in print, when a patch is immortalized in a photograph.
It’s honestly a drop in the bucket of the exposure we all get to advertising everyday. As a society, we’re bombarded with ads every day, most of it unconsciously. From product placement to billboards on buses to a Subway logo on the score ticker, they’re everywhere. Having a small patch on a jersey is hardly a tipping point.