Cool or Drool: And Now, a Message from Our Sponsors

Dan Bisno , Columnist

Every year the NBA seemingly becomes more and more popular. With Kobe Bryant’s recent retirement and the Golden State Warriors breaking Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls’ 72–10 single-season win record, the U.S.’s attention has largely been consumed by basketball this spring. Either way, since the organization’s conception, the NBA’s most popular product among fans has been jerseys. After all, who wouldn’t want to sport the same jersey as an NBA All-Star? League officials undoubtedly picked up on this trend, as the NBA recently announced that, starting in the 2017–2018 season, jerseys will feature commercial advertisements.

Before you waste your savings on an advertisement-free jersey to get one of the last “pure” jerseys in circulation, let’s first discuss the details of this transition. Starting in 2017, each team will be allowed to sell a 2.5 by 2.5 inch spot on the front of its jersey to a company of its choice, as part of a three-year trial in alternative advertising. Imagine Stephen Curry in all of his glory, taking finals MVP photos with a fat IKEA patch on his chest!

NBA commissioner Adam Silver suggested that this program might be worth about $100 million per year — a portion of the $7 billion in revenue that the league is projected to make in a single season. Another anticipated change for the season is that Adidas will no longer make NBA uniforms, as Nike is set to take the reigns. This adds another wrinkle to classic NBA uniforms — albeit much less significant. While players will wear these new jerseys on a nightly basis, the real question is whether or not the NBA Store will carry these jerseys for an average fan to purchase. The answer is maybe. Teams will be required to sell the advertisement-free jerseys, but they will also have the option of selling the advertisement patch if they so choose.

The historical trend in jersey advertisements sheds light on some of the concerns hatching from the minds of skeptical fans. Soccer has always been the jersey advertisement sport. NASCAR may beat out soccer in the American arena, but internationally soccer is an example of profoundly popular jerseys that are consumed by advertisement. In the 1950s, the Uruguayan club, Peñarol, became the first club to allow advertisements on its jerseys to survive a financial crisis, and by the 1970s it was the industry standard.

Today, there are teams like the Seattle Sounders in Major League Soccer with jerseys that read “XBOX” in massive block letters across the front, while smaller “Adidas” and “Seattle Sounders FC” patches take a backseat on the upper chest. Fans of the NBA are worried that it will not be long until the league’s little 2.5 by 2.5 inch patch turns into the majority of the jersey real estate — perhaps a 10-inch centerpiece like the ones that have become common for the average professional soccer team. Will a Warriors jersey feature “IKEA” in larger font than “Golden State Warriors”? Is Silver calling this a trial run just to acclimate fans to the future of NBA jerseys? Kobe probably retired this year just so his jersey’s sanctity would never be cursed by a Trader Joe’s advertisement.

Fortunately, the players aren’t totally disregarded in this arrangement. Since the revenue from the advertisements is considered basketball-related income, the players will get some cut of the advertisement sales. But the NBA has not explained what will happen in the case of a jersey advertisement competing with a player endorsement, which could become a major headache for the league and its players in the future — the NFL is currently in a similar predicament.

While the NFL does not have jersey advertisements, the organization is sponsored by a multitude of companies. Players may not wear or use products from competitors of the NFL’s endorsers 90 minutes before a game or 90 minutes after. For example, this means that NFL players may not use Beats headphones because Bose sponsors the organization. The NFL has been fining players as much as $10,000 for wearing Beats around game time, including stars like Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick. This has caused deafening uproar among players that believe the league rules are becoming regulated beyond reason. Denver Broncos safety T.J. Ward believes that Beats should be permitted for use in games, saying, “It’s just a cultural thing. They were like the first hip-hop headphones. Football, sports and hip-hop go hand in hand.”

Perhaps jersey advertisements aren’t all bad. A recent poll on NBC Sport’s Pro Football Talk showed that over 80 percent of the 10,000-plus fans think that the NFL should start advertising on its uniforms. In soccer, the advertising is so abundant that it has become a generally accepted norm. Eventually fans will acclimate to the change, which really is not going to be that painful. As long as the NBA does not infringe on the players’ endorsement deals and their autonomy to wear what they want and when they want, advertising is a COOL and a unique new source of revenue for players and the league.