While the commercialization of sports is nothing new, its rapid growth over the last two decades is a well-covered story with clear consequences: owners and players got exponentially richer, while many fans became increasingly alienated from the teams and players they loved. Today, fans can choose to pay obscenely expensive ticket prices to attend games played at new antiseptic stadiums with soulless, corporate names, or they can watch agonizingly long games on television interrupted by a predictable rotation of beer and car commercials every few minutes.
Sometime soon, the final frontier of sports commercialization will probably be conquered: team uniforms. On-athlete logo pollution is a practice that's accepted in NASCAR and on international soccer uniforms, but is still thankfully absent in the MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL. Sadly, Mark Cuban stirred the pot last month by telling Advertising Age that he expects it to change soon -- "I think it's more an issue of 'how much' rather than 'if' [it happens]," he said .
In case there is any doubt, the first advertiser who pays for the pleasure is going to be the victim of a publicity nightmare. Sports buffs are a fanatical bunch, and they care about tradition. Altering the jersey of their favorite team isn't likely to convert them into consumers. This seems obvious enough.
Nevertheless, history suggests that brands will eventually make the leap. Milwaukee County Stadium was knocked down and replaced by Miller Field. The Fiesta Bowl was renamed the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. It might comfort CMOs to know neither brand was irrevocably damaged in the process.
But branding team uniforms is a much more delicate topic. Consider the $4 billion sports merchandising business -- much of which is made up of fans that proudly wear their favorite jerseys. When the first brave brand steps forward and slaps its logo on a uniform, it can do so in one of two ways: the wrong way, or the right way.
The Wrong Way -- Win-Win-Lose
The wrong way is the win-win-lose method. Unfortunately, this is the industry standard. The first winner is the league (including owners and players), which will reap the added revenue. The second winner is the advertiser, who will get the additional exposure and attention. The only loser is the fan, who will have to deal with compromised, inevitably uglier uniforms.
The Right Way -- Win-Win-Win
A win-win-win method would actually make the fans winners, too.
To consider how this might happen, we can look to the Seibu Lions, a baseball team in Japan's Pacific League. In 2007, they disappointed their fans when they essentially sold their star pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, to the Boston Red Sox for over $50 million.
Instead of just pocketing the revenue, management transparently invested it back into the team. Twenty-five million dollars went to vastly improve what had been a drab stadium. Another $5 million went to improve the team by acquiring younger players, while the rest went to taxes.
When sponsored-uniforms happen, the leagues and advertisers would be wise to learn from this example. They simply need to figure out what is important to the fans, and then make sure some of the revenue generated is openly used to that end.
Will this ever happen? History says no, but I hope it does. The teams on the field might be trying to beat each other, but businesses do not thrive by making losers out of fans and consumers. Sure, the leagues might still be in the money-making business, but consumers now more than ever are demanding value for their money.
As I was told by my second-grade tee-ball team, everyone can be a winner. It might be a good idea for major league sports and advertisers to remember that.