With player salaries and other costs continuing to rise, the National Football League and other major North American sports leagues would welcome a new sponsorship revenue stream. In this atmosphere, what has been an advertising-free zone—game uniforms—may find corporate logos stitched upon them.
“People may not be ready for it, but teams and leagues are going to be looking for ways to generate revenue,” said Darin David, director of sports marketing agency Millsport, who believes sponsored uniforms are likely to become a reality in the major North American professional sports leagues.
Even though the NFL, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball have so far kept corporate logos off their uniforms, Major League Soccer, the Women's National Basketball Association and NASCAR have welcomed corporate logos (including those of b-to-b marketers) on uniforms.
Overseas, soccer has long featured corporate logos on uniforms. For example, Aon Corp. is paying a reported $20 million annually as the shirt sponsor of the Manchester United soccer club in the English Premiere League. Closer to home, corporate logos now appear on NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB practice uniforms.
According to a February study by Scout Sports & Entertainment, a division of Horizon Media, teams in the top 20 media markets in the big four North American sports leagues could take in a combined $370 million annually in sponsorship revenue by allowing logos on game uniforms.
Michael Newman, managing partner of Scout Sports & Entertainment, estimated the total value now being left on the table to be between $550 million and $700 million a year when all the teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB are taken into consideration.
Newman said uniform sponsorship could provide a novel opportunity for b-to-b marketers. He cited previous successes in Major League Soccer with Herbalife, Amway Global and XanGo sponsoring the uniforms of the Los Angeles Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and Real Salt Lake, respectively. “It was an opportunity for them to introduce their brand to audiences and use these relationships to build platforms that recruit new salespeople and create energy and excitement for their brands,” he said.
NASCAR has led the way in uniform sponsorships. Steve Newmark, president of Roush Fenway Racing, said racing has always embraced sponsorship, because the drivers understand from a young age racing on dirt tracks that they won't be able to get behind the wheel and compete without the backing of marketers.
AJ Maestas, president at Navigate Marketing, a sports and entertainment marketing agency, said the major North American sports leagues will open uniforms up to sponsorships in the next 10 years. He cited the fact that fans are watching the game and may miss a sponsor's huge sign displayed at a stadium.
“Jerseys are integrated into the experience and can reach that audience that's only focused on the game play,” Maestas said. He also sees it as implied endorsement. When soccer great David Beckham signed with the Galaxy, Maestas saw a worldwide marketing impact for sponsor Herbalife because the superstar has fans around the globe.
While much of the focus may initially be on b-to-c marketers, Maestas sees no reason why b-to-b companies looking to expand their brands can't get in on the action. “Jerseys add credibility and show that the company is big, established and can be trusted,” he said. “It can have the same effect on businesses as consumers.”
Not all branding experts and media buyers agree on the inevitability of uniform sponsorship in the big four North American sports leagues.
Jim Gregory, CEO of CoreBrand, said potential conflicts of interest and hits to the leagues' images may make it not worth the trouble. “It's a way to drive revenue, but will it hurt their own branding in the long run?” he said. “I'm not sure it's in their best interest. The NFL is smart. They aren't going to gamble their brands without doing every bit of research.”
New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning is an example of a player who might find himself personally conflicted with more sponsorships. The team's practice jerseys are sponsored by Timex, but Manning also has a deal to showcase Citizen watches. While teams and leagues will be looking to bulk up their bottom lines, players may find themselves restricted.