Don’t Stress The NBA Jersey Sponsorships (Too Much)

A funny thing happened since last month’s official announcement that the NBA owners approved of advertisements on team jerseys in the 2017-18 season. People suddenly became purists.

Anyone who had working fingers and a bout of #TheRage decided to post displeasure on social media where ideally like-minded individuals would lament the point of no return for corporate creep into sports. With the Philadelphia 76ers becoming the first team to show off a jersey sponsor with StubHub earlier this week, the responses were predictably unkind.

(Truth be told, the small rectangle doesn’t look bad at all. Props for customizing the logo with team colors.)

While much of the outrage is rooted in the team’s unmitigated futility in recent years, there is also a sentiment that American sports teams have officially sold out for the almighty dollar. Never mind that selling out is quintessentially American. The problem with this thinking is that sports have never been and will never be sacrosanct when it comes to visual shilling for dollars.

An NHL rink has at least 20 different board and on-ice ads that you can’t avoid unless you are too busy actually playing in the game itself. Your average Major League Baseball outfield wall and scoreboards look like a Sunday newspaper coupon insert — for those under the age of 25, one of these. The only thing the NFL doesn’t have an official “something” of is an official sponsor of concussion protocols. An MMA cage or boxing ring that doesn’t have an advertisement on it hasn’t been made yet. Auto racing organizations such as NASCAR and Formula 1 are essentially advertising agencies. And of course, there are the human billboards called soccer players, whose franchise owners and leagues had compromised team uniforms decades before just about everyone else except for anyone in auto racing. (For what it’s worth, Mental Floss has a great overview of the history of jersey sponsorships.)

While the NBA said it was going to pursue this revenue stream two years ago and team owners voted in favor of it last month, the shock and awe of these sorts of changes aren’t fully realized until a tangible product exists that we’d like to light on fire.

So where is this anger truly rooted about it? That depends on whom you ask. Not too dissimilar to folks who want to “make America great again,” there’s this incredibly absurd idea that there was a time where big-time spectator sports were as ad-free as your illegal sports streams with ad blockers turned on. Yet, for as long as mass media has existed — in television, on the radio, in print and, now, online — our grandparents and parents watched sports with sponsors interjecting into the action in some way.

Yet, there can also be a purely aesthetic concern. In an era when we are able to critique even conceptual uniforms as soon as there’s a hint of what the real ones will look like, we’re very open with our disapproval of anything that doesn’t evoke a “clean” or “classic” look. From the often-forced addition (and now subtraction) of black in many team identities to monochromatic uniforms in college sports to whatever the hell the Arizona Diamondbacks are doing, the sporting public has rejected many team identity refreshes out of a sense of a nostalgia for past heydays or days their franchises never lived but wish they could.

Yes, it would have been wonderful if the jerseys were never touched. And while there’s a tinge of xenophobia at play here — some fans are vocal about not wanting the four major North American leagues to go the way of European soccer since “this is America, dammit!” — there’s also the desire of not wanting to buy a jersey with some random corporate logo slapped onto it. Ask yourself this question: Are you going to a sneaker store to buy kicks that might match the insignia of some B-to-B tech company? Probably not.

In all honesty, if you are a fan of any other sport, it’s hard to really get worked up about what NBA teams will roll out starting in 2017 because we’re almost numb to corporate creep in the games we love. These franchises are components of a multibillion-dollar corporation in itself. The upcoming advertising platform won’t cause you to think that the game itself was better before the jersey sponsorships started rolling in.

The only true concern to have will be when those little rectangles display horribly branded social media hashtags that teams and broadcasters will sell to clients (it’ll probably happen). At that point, pray that brands have finally stopped saying “bae.”

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