Reforming The Uniform

As a sports-obsessed kid, I thought that my beloved New York Yankees, Giants, Knicks, and Rangers were in the business of winning -- even when they were losing. As a jaded teenager, I came to realize that they were actually in another business: making money.

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.

6 comments about "Reforming The Uniform ".
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  1. Joshua Chasin from VideoAmp, November 30, 2010 at 10:38 a.m.

    For my money, advertiser logos on sports uniforms is a bad idea. The teams themselves are brands, and the uniform is one off the absolute best branding media for the sports franchise, and I think it would be penny wise and dollar foolish to dilute that by siphoning off the brand equity opportunity to a paid advertiser.

  2. Lk Braswell from 241 Ads, November 30, 2010 at 11:12 a.m.

    it's already being done...just look at the Nike logos, Under armour, adidas... all prominently displayed on the uniforms, shoes, etc. It's all a part of their $ packages with pro sports.
    Why couldn't GM have the uniforms made in the same Chinese factories and put their logos on them? As long as they are willing to pay, just as Nike does.

  3. Jonathan Neschis, November 30, 2010 at 11:20 a.m.

    The NFL does it with practice jerseys - especially visible during preseason. It feels like an unfortunate inevitability that it will make its way to game day unis in the core four sports, and I have serious doubts that American pro teams would pour the revenue back the way Seibu did. Look no further than the Pittsburgh Pirates and other MLB clubs who pocket luxury tax money instead of using on bettering the on-field product.

  4. Gerry Myers from Advisory Link, November 30, 2010 at 11:23 a.m.

    If limited and tastefully done, some brand advertising is probably inevitable on uniforms of some teams in the future. However, large billboards, ads on the mega-TVs at stadiums and announcers already provide a lot of exposure for sponsors.
    As far as ticket prices, it is sad that the major leagues have priced their tickets out of reach for many families. I recommend they try minor league teams. Excellent opportunities are available there for families to enjoy sports together as a family without breaking the bank.

  5. Tomasito Bobadilla from BFM Movimiento LLC, November 30, 2010 at 11:48 a.m.

    Great perspective Jared, but I disagree that the time is near. Here's why. MLB, NFL, NBA, and the NHL and its corresponding teams are driven by the fan experience. Each respective team brand, i.e.; the Yankees, the Giants, the Celtics, the Canadians are older than any corporate brand, with the exception of Coca Cola. Most owners are still owned by the same original family. These owners do manage a billion dollar brand. Most Corporate brand are trying to complement its product line with the legions of brand loyalist who in many cases manage the brand via its purchase of season tickets, merchandise, and the pursuit of its players and coaches. You start naming the Colgate Canucks or the Crest Cowboys and you may have a revolt at the cash register and plummet those companies to never recover from the lack of foresight. Mark Cuban is an expansion owner, with no brand loyalist outside of Dallas. While the Lakers have millions of brand loyalist across the Globe experiencing the same user experience build by its History and culture of what the Lakers are and is.

    Maybe the next 20 years may evolve the product brand integration into the uniforms, where new users/converts are coming into the sport without having a thorough knowledge of its player history or the team brand.
    The owners do want the product brand integration with their respective team brand. Most have taken liberty to bring on new converts to the game experience. The Giants build a new stadium to accommodate the legions of brand loyalist who were on a seven year waiting list for tickets. The St. Louis Cardinals created the PSL format to accommodate their fan base. I’m quite sure, they could have gone via product uniform placement on those beautiful whitties with the red bird across its chest with Budweiser Cardinals, but hey, they decided to opt and create PSL, the personal seat license for a ten-year hold…Not bad, right. However, we can assume that the new owners, InBev, would have chosen the Budweiser Cardinals instead of the millions they gave for the naming rights. Busch Stadium and thus create a "bad experience."

    College Football uses corporate branding dollars to lure top-tier coaches, but we will never see Kellogg’s on the Nebraska Cornhuskers uniform. Keep in mind, that the team brand name is the focal point, not the product brand name. From an image viewpoint, the soccer uniforms in Europe and the States are hideous. The user experience is totally gone, when you plaster a corporate logo as the image transfer for the fan experience.

    No longer is the fan/user as passionate as before.
    Keep in mind, a fan/user may dislike the brand that its associating itself with my organically driven user experience when I put on my #75 Mean Joe Green, or my #15 Yankees Jersey. Guess the player the experience please, and you will see the image and team transfer organically to its user.

    It’s not the first time, or the last time this topic will come up. But we can honestly rest our heads knowing that the real value of American Sports lies in the fan/user experience with its favorite team/brands……Packers, Bears, Cardinals, Giants, Rangers, etc, etc, and not Pepsi Knicks……

  6. Tim King, November 30, 2010 at 12:04 p.m.

    I seem to remember several years ago that there was quite a stir around a company wanting to "sponsor" the bases during the World Series. I can't recall if they actually did it or not, but clearly that was a case of over-commercialization. Just because we could - doesn't mean that we should.

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