Will MLB sell space on player uniforms?

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Major League Baseball isn't carrying advertising logos on its uniforms-yet-but with a potential $500 million annual payoff waiting in the wings, sports-watchers think it's only a matter of time.

The question was raised last week when MLB opened its 2004 season last week with a special two-game series in Japan between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. As noticeable as the change in venue was the addition to the uniform: Both teams wore 3-inch by 3-inch patches on their sleeves and a logo on their batting helmets for Ricoh, the Tokyo-based office equipment company. Ricoh paid more than $10 million to be the corporate sponsor for those two games.

"Are there any definitive plans to put logos on uniforms? No. I don't see that happening," Tim Brosnan, baseball's exec VP-business, told writers in Japan last week. "But on the other side of the coin, never say never."

not `if'; `when'

Officially, MLB, the National Football League, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League all say that advertising on uniforms isn't imminent. But others, including some inside the leagues, say it isn't a question of "if," but "when," especially with the potential windfall that exists.

"Minimum $500 million a year," said one high-ranking league marketing executive who asked not to be identified. "Look, if the NFL can get $60 million a year from Coors and $48 million [a year] from Gatorade for just 16 games a season, imagine what baseball-which is far more static when it comes to television-could get for 162 games a year from a major sponsor?"

Does $500 million sound outlandish? Not to Eric Wright, VP-research and development for Joyce Julius & Associates, an Ann Arbor, Mich., firm that measures exposure received by sponsors through national TV broadcasts, mentions in print, radio, Internet and other sources aside from media buys the sponsor makes.

For instance, Joyce Julius found that in the first three Nascar races of this season, Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser brand received $29.2 million in exposure. Over 36 races, that is roughly $350 million. "Just looking at it from a football angle, when the college bowl games are in season those jersey patches with the sponsor's name on them are huge," Mr. Wright said. "From a baseball standpoint, you're looking at a tremendous amount of on-screen time and the value would be enormous."

just apparel makers

Currently only the logos of the apparel manufacturers appear on team uniforms for baseball, football and hockey. Reebok has a $250 million deal with the NBA to make its uniforms, but only the NBA logo appears on team jerseys.

Baseball visited this topic on the eve of the 1999 season, when MLB floated the idea of having 11/2-inch by 11/2-inch patches of corporate sponsors sewn onto team jerseys. That was half the size of the Ricoh sleeve patches for the games in Japan last week.

If and when the idea is broached again, however, disputes will certainly arise. Individual teams would not be able to strike their own agreements with marketers, meaning any deal would come at the league level and every team would wear a logo from the same marketer. But if that deal was with, say, PepsiCo, then teams that have pouring rights and advertising deals with Coca-Cola Co. would scream conflict.

Furthermore, leagues would run the risk of alienating other corporate sponsors if it had the logo of a single marketer on team uniforms.

Fans who believe in the sanctity of the uniform would surely make their feelings known. Already, MLB has received a letter from watchdog group Commercial Alert about the Ricoh ads worn during the Japan series last week.

In part, the letter said "It's clear where this is headed. Small ads at first to break the ice and gain `consumer acceptance' in the term of the marketing trade. Then a gradual creep until baseball uniforms start to resemble Nascar racing suits and cars." The letter also asked MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to address several questions, including "What exactly are your plans to put ads on uniforms?" Baseball has yet to respond.

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