NBA Jersey Ads Signal Corporate Encroachment

Alex McNicoll, Sports Editor

The Golden State Warriors inked yet another eight-figure contract this week that will completely reshape the NBA. Instead of adding another MVP to their roster, however, the reigning world champions signed a deal to let Rakuten, a major Japanese tech company, advertise on their jerseys. The three-year, $60-million agreement is the latest and largest in the NBA’s decision to let teams put ads on their jerseys. This move by the NBA shows how corporate sponsorships are taking yet another step in defining the way we experience sports.

Rakuten is not new to the sports world, as it signed a similar contract with soccer powerhouse FC Barcelona last November. Its soccer deal was much more lucrative, totaling at $262 million over four years. However, soccer teams make a much larger portion of their revenue off of jersey ads, so the contracts are much larger than those in the states. On the other hand, American sports franchises such as the NBA make most of their money off of TV deals. Last season marked the NBA’s first of a nine-year deal that will collect $2.6 billion annually from ESPN and TNT.

Because of TV contracts, American sports have shied away from advertising on jerseys. However, it seems natural that the NBA would be the first league to change that corporate model, as it has become equally a brand showcase as it has a sporting league. From the Jordan Brand to the Big Baller Brand, NBA superstars have capitalized on shoe-deals and sponsorships as much as they have on contract money, if not more. The $100 million Michael Jordan made from his Jordan Brand in 2014, for instance, is more than the $94 million he made throughout his entire 15-year career in the NBA.

More alarming than the size of sponsorship deals is how it actually affects the on-court product of NBA teams, as well as all other major American sports leagues beyond it. In the 2010–2011 season, Adidas athlete and Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose won MVP. In the following offseason, Adidas spoke at length with the Bulls, Dwight Howard, and Howard’s agent to ensure that the three-time Defensive Player of the Year, an impending free-agent who was also signed with Adidas, would not join his Adidas counterpart in Chicago. Whether through free-agency or trade, Adidas did not want its two best players in the same city, and it never happened.

Corporate deals are the lifeblood of professional sports. No matter the skill of the players or the size of the fan base, major corporations will always sign the biggest checks, dictating what we do or don’t see in American sports. Soccer, which is undoubtedly the biggest sport in the world, has never been able to exist in the American sports market. While the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB make nearly all of their money because of commercial breaks, soccer is a game that has two continuous non-stop halves with only one commercial break in the middle. In other words, TV networks didn’t have the demand to broadcast soccer games, so people never watched them or felt the urge to play themselves, consequently fostering general disinterest.

On the other hand, it’s an American tradition to watch the Super Bowl each year, whether for the game, the commercials, or the halftime show. While only the biggest music superstars perform during the Super Bowl halftime show today, 30 years ago this was far from the case. In fact, from the first Super Bowl in 1967 to 1992, the halftime show was a mess that was rarely broadcasted, and only watched by a few. Sometimes college marching bands would perform, and other times a little-known musical guest would play.

However, in 1993 Michael Jackson decided to perform, and his act was so groundbreaking that from then on Super Bowl ratings would peak at halftime, changing the first Sunday in February forever. Jackson made the Super Bowl must-see TV, and it has maintained that status ever since. Without Jackson’s performance, such large audiences would likely not be drawn to the Super Bowl each year, and TV networks would not make $166,666.67 a second on commercial deals.

The games we watch and the players we love will always be influenced by how much money can be made. While the “integrity of the game” will always be valued by fans and maintained with rule-changes, PED testing, and similar sporting institutions, it is wrong to assume that sports, as an institution, abstain from going against these values to make money. You may not believe that players like Kobe Bryant or Maria Sharapova manipulate their on-field and off-field image in order to build their brand, but if someone can make $100 million a year on a shoe deal, then they will.