If the major professional sports leagues in this country ever inch closer to having sponsor names on jerseys, it will be the Women's National Basketball Association that nudges them there.
For the second time in two years the WNBA has signed an agreement to put marketer names on coveted jersey space, this time inking a precedent-setting deal with Boost Mobile that makes the wireless carrier the first league-wide, marquee partner of the WNBA.
The Boost Mobile name will be featured at the bottom of the game jerseys of 10 of the 12 WNBA teams -- San Antonio and Phoenix already have existing sponsor deals with wireless providers and won't have Boost Mobile on the jersey, but are part of the overall deal. Boost Mobile is the prepaid, no-contract phone service of Sprint.
Two years ago, the league allowed teams to feature corporate sponsors on their uniforms. Five franchises -- Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Seattle and Washington -- have company logos at the tops of their respective jerseys. But this marks the first time the WNBA has had a league partner with jersey branding with multiple WNBA teams throughout the season other than Adidas, the league's official outfitter. In addition, Boost Mobile will have a strong presence in these 10 teams' arenas, where its brand will be displayed on courts and pole pads, and the wireless company will be the title partner for the league's All-Star Game, as well as sponsoring special programming highlighting the WNBA's top 15 moments for its 15th anniversary season.
Financial terms of the multi-year deal were not announced but it was described as the most lucrative deal in the history of the league.
"Yeah, I guess we do see ourselves as a bit groundbreaking, a little bit trailblazing," WNBA Commissioner Laurel Richie said in an interview with Ad Age . "This is precedent-setting. This is without a doubt the single most significant marketing partnership the league could have."
Whether it leads other team sports in the U.S. to break the ice with sponsor names on jerseys -- specifically, the National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League -- remains to be seen. Major League Soccer does allow corporate branding on its team jerseys.
"The history and tradition of the WNBA, being much less than the established leagues, brings with it less sensitivity when it comes to sponsorship," said David Carter, principal for the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group and executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. "So jersey sponsorship may work there and in soccer, where doing so has long been accepted on a global scale, and with emerging sports where fan pushback is likely to be minimal."
Ms. Richie said she saw this is a win-win opportunity for both the league and Boost Mobile.
"This was a priority for us as we were heading into our 15th season and beyond," she said. "We all know how important sponsorships are to the health and success of sports leagues. We set our sights on finding a good partner and we did."
Boost Mobile already sponsors action-sports icon Travis Pastrana, Pastrana-Waltrip Racing and the Boost Mobile No. 99 Toyota in Nascar, and is the official wireless partner of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Steve Gaffney, Boost's VP-corporate marketing, said the company has done its research on the WNBA.
"We do quite a bit of analysis around awareness of the Sprint brand in the Nascar Sprint Cup Series and have learned uniform branding is an important contributor," he said in an email to Ad Age . "The WNBA is the premier women's professional sports league in the country and the assets the partnership provides are unprecedented, giving Boost Mobile a cost-effective way to market our prepaid products and services to a diverse customer base in major metropolitan areas."
Mr. Carter said the main stumbling block to any similar deal with the likes of the NFL or MLB is the fans. Corporate sponsorship on jerseys "takes an implicit buy-in from fans," he said. "Absent this, sponsors won't get the bang for the buck they are seeking."