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A Brief History of Jersey Sponsorship

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Yesterday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke at a Sports Business Daily conference and said that the move to put sponsorship patches on team jerseys is "inevitable." He added that this revenue-increasing tactic will likely go into practice within the next five years.

Jersey sponsorship has its roots in soccer, but it has slowly begun to creep into the other major professional sports. Here’s a brief history of the practice, including some of the more interesting jersey sponsors over the years.

The Pioneers

Most soccer historians credit Peñarol, a Uruguayan club team, with introducing the concept of jersey sponsorship to the sports world during the 1950s. A handful of clubs in France, Denmark, and Austria turned to jersey sponsorship as a means of bringing in a little extra money in the years that followed, but most leagues throughout the rest of Europe were vehemently opposed to the idea and prohibited member teams from featuring names or logos other than their own on their shirts.

Jager Bomb Precedes Sponsorship Explosion

Image via BigSoccer.com

A new age in jersey sponsorship began in 1973, when Günter Mast, the nephew of Jagermeister creator Curt Mast, had the brilliant idea of placing the German liqueur’s stag and glowing cross logo on German Bundesliga squad Eintracht Braunschweig’s uniforms. Mast had previously launched a Jagermeister-sponsored motor racing team, but saw an incredible opportunity in the world’s top sport. “Through football, you could reach all sections of the population,” he said, according to a 2008 Soccernet article.

Mast paid Eintracht Braunschweig anywhere from 160,000 Marks to 800,000 Marks over five years to put the Jagermeister logo on the front of its shirts. Initially, the German football association denied the club’s request, but the league was powerless when Eintracht Braunschweig’s players voted to replace their traditional logo with the Jagermeister stag. On March 23, 1973, the team made its debut against Schalke in its new uniforms. Seven months later, the Bundesliga officially sanctioned jersey sponsorship.

England Reluctantly Joins the Sponsorship Party

Three years after the Jagermeister logo debuted on the pitch in Germany, Kettering Town of the English Southern League signed a four-figure sponsorship deal with Kettering Tyres and took the field with its sponsor’s name emblazoned across the front of its shirt. When league officials ordered the club to remove the name, Kettering responded by removing the last four letters in “TYRES” and claimed that “KETTERING T” stood for Kettering Town. The league didn’t find that explanation satisfactory and threatened the club with a hefty fine before it eventually removed all of the letters. One year later, English leagues began allowing jersey sponsorship.

Jersey Sponsorship Values Skyrocket

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Over the last 35 years, jersey sponsorship deals have emerged as major revenue sources for clubs throughout the world, particularly in Europe. According to a report by SPORT+MARKT, the total invested in jersey sponsorship in Europe’s top five leagues doubled from 235 million euros in 2000 to 470 million euros in 2011.

One of the largest jersey sponsorship deals belongs to Manchester United, which agreed to a $131 million deal over four years with Chicago-based AON Corp after previously being sponsored by AIG. 

Barcelona Shells Out, Eventually Sells Out

While most of their European counterparts gave in to the temptation of jersey sponsorship long ago, FC Barcelona shunned the practice for the first 111 years of its storied existence. In 2006, the club announced an unusual agreement with UNICEF, whereby it would donate $1.5 million annually to the humanitarian organization and feature the UNICEF logo on the front of its classic jerseys.

In the face of growing financial pressures, the opportunity costs of not having a corporate sponsor became too great, however, and Barcelona announced a record-setting agreement with the Qatar Foundation last December. Starting on July 1, the Qatar Foundation’s logo will appear on the front of Barcelona’s shirts and the UNICEF logo will be moved to the back. Barcelona will receive $200 million over five years from the nonprofit.

All Sorts of Sponsors

Money talks, which leads to some interesting sponsors. Here are a few of the more amusing and interesting European jersey sponsorship deals over the years.

• Clydebank – Wet Wet Wet: In 1994, the Scottish pop rock band Wet Wet Wet’s cover of The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” spent 15 weeks atop the British charts. Following that success, the band sponsored its hometown team.

• FC Nurnberg – Mister Lady: The garment company sponsored the German Bundesliga team, making Nurnberg the target of much ridicule. There’s no need for trash talk when you can simply point to your opponent’s chest. (See also: Oxford United – Wang Computers, AC Milan – Pooh Jeans, and many more.)

• West Brom – No Smoking: From 1984 to 1986, the West Midlands Health Authority paid to have the universal No Smoking sign placed on the front of West Bromwich Albion’s jerseys. The campaign featured the slogan, “Be like Albion – kick the smoking habit.”

• Scarborough – Black Death Vodka: The English Football League banned this sponsorship shortly after it was announced in 1990. “The company is wholly reputable,” Scarborough chairman Geoffrey Richard told reporters following the announcement. “It may be just a case of overreaction. It is perhaps understandable when efforts are being made to improve the sport’s image.”

• Portsmouth – Ty: The Ohio-based company responsible for Beanie Babies had its European headquarters in Portsmouth and sponsored the English Premier League team from 2002 to 2005.

Jersey Sponsorship in the United States

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In 2006, Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake became the first major professional team in the United States to embrace jersey-front sponsorship when it announced a deal with XanGo, which produces nutritional supplement products. The Philadelphia Union is sponsored by Bimbo (pronounced BEEM-bo), a Mexico-based bakery. "I just think it's kind of dumb," Union fan Anne Ewing told a reporter after the sponsorship deal was announced. "We'll all have to explain it over and over and over again."

WNBA and D-League Join In

NBA Entertainment

Shortly after the MLS broke the jersey sponsorship ice in the United States, the WNBA authorized its teams to feature sponsors’ logos on their uniforms. The Phoenix Mercury was the first team to take the bait, replacing its logo with that of LifeLock, which specializes in identity-theft protection. “We thought it was time we stepped outside the boundaries and bring additional value to our marketing partners,” Mercury president Jay Parry said.

The NBA Development League wasn’t far behind. In 2010, the league champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers forged a partnership with Lone Star National Bank, agreeing to feature the bank’s logo on the front of its jerseys. Around the same time, the NBDL’s Erie BayHawks announced a sponsorship agreement with the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM).

We’re Talking About Practice Jerseys

In 2009, the NFL allowed teams to sell sponsorship patches for their practice jerseys and several teams took advantage during training camp. Teams were prohibited from partnering with alcohol brands. The New Jersey Nets became the first NBA team to feature sponsorship on its practice jerseys as part of a deal with PNY Technologies later that year. Several NHL teams, including the Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, and Vancouver Canucks, started selling practice jersey sponsorship.

Are game jerseys next? According to a Horizon Media study, the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and New York Giants could all land jersey sponsorship deals worth more than $14 million per year. The same study estimated the total potential value in jersey sponsorship across the four major American professional sports leagues is $371 million.

NBA Joins the Party

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If you want an NBA jersey untouched by a sponsor's logo, you should probably buy one soon. The NBA's plans for sponsored jerseys would be worth an estimated $100 million to the league and, according to Adam Silver, "It just creates that much more of an opportunity for our marketing partners to get that much closer to our fans and to our players." In other words: "$$$."

According to reports, the sponsorship placement would amount to one 2½ inch by 2½ inch patch per jersey. That's not a lot of real estate on a 7'2" center, but there's definitely room to grow.

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Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.

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History
Hans Schmidt, the "Nazi" Wrestler Who Incited Riots
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Waiting inside the locker room of the Pioneer Memorial Stadium, The Des Moines Register reporter Walter Shotwell thought he had found a clever way to discredit a visiting professional wrestler named Hans Schmidt. Just a few days prior, on August 1, 1953, Schmidt had been seen on national television barking into a microphone using a thick German accent. He dismissed the concept of sportsmanship and vowed to “win ze title and take it back to Germany vere it belongs.”

In the years following World War II, a German nationalist was not likely to be cheered on anywhere in the United States, but the vitriol Schmidt encouraged was unlike anything pro wrestling had ever seen. Schmidt had fans practically frothing at the mouth, stabbing him with hairpins, waving cigarette lighters in his face, and vandalizing his car. Fearing for his safety, police would often have to escort him through angry mobs. It didn’t really seem to matter whether Schmidt was truly anti-American or just playing a role. Either one seemed egregious.

Shotwell suspected the latter. During his interview with Schmidt, he handed him a newspaper clipping and asked him to read it out loud in German. Schmidt refused, saying that Shotwell wouldn’t understand him. Looking at it closely, Schmidt could see it quoted residents of Munich, where he claimed to hail from, who said they had never heard of any Hans Schmidt.

Shotwell pushed it a little further, until Schmidt made it clear he wasn’t going to continue to play along. Had he admitted the truth—that he was not an actual Nazi, but a French-Canadian named Guy Larose—then he likely would have missed out on a career that would eventually make him one of the highest-paid and most reviled athletes in the world.

Courtesy of Dave Drason Burzynski

If pretending to be an enemy of the state was his destiny, then Larose was born at the right time. He was 24 in 1949, the year he decided to become a pro wrestler; his dream of joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police had ended while he was still in training after the police and several RCMP students tried to enforce an alcohol ban on a nearby Native community and had their vehicles pummeled with baseball bats.

Eager to exploit his six-foot-four, 240-pound frame, Larose turned to wrestling. In Michigan and across Canada, he was able to book contests but found that neither his persona nor his real name was drawing a crowd.

Arriving in Boston in 1951, Larose met wrestling promoter Paul Bowser, who took one look at the stern-faced wrestler and declared that he should adopt a Nazi persona. Larose wouldn’t be the first—Kurt Von Poppenheim had already devised a similar gimmick—but he’d have an opportunity to do it on television.

At the time, ring sports like boxing and wrestling were ideal for the burgeoning medium. Cheap to produce, they could easily fill programming schedules on networks like the DuMont Television Network, a onetime rival to CBS, NBC, and a burgeoning ABC that aired grappling contests from Chicago. Although Larose—now Schmidt—had been stirring up attention prior, it was his August 1953 appearance and interview with Chicago Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse that drew more disdain than usual.

After declaring “Germany has been good to me” and claiming that he believed there was no place for sportsmanship in wrestling, Schmidt was cut off by Brickhouse. With the emotional wounds of World War II still fresh, his appearance had struck a nerve. DuMont, Brickhouse would later recall, received more than 5000 angry letters from viewers who were disgusted by Schmidt. At least one viewer recommended he be deported.

Larose, however, exercised some restraint. The word “Nazi” was rarely tossed around, and he never goosestepped or carried a swastika with him. The implication of his allegiance seemed to be more than enough to stir the crowd into a frenzy, especially when he would remain seated during the National Anthem or turn his back at the sight of the American flag. He had been a motorcycle dispatcher during the war, he told journalists, and was once shot down while in a plane.

Although those details weren’t true, on many nights Larose may have felt as though he was in a war zone. Walking to the ring, he’d often be jabbed by women using their hairpins, or by men trying to singe him with their cigarettes. During matches, his “cheating”—using chairs to brain opponents, or kicking them in the groin—would draw crowds toward the ring in an effort to start a riot. At one engagement in Milwaukee, the ensuing chaos led to a brief ban on pro wrestling in the arena.

When the journalist Shotwell asked him what kind of car he drove, he hesitated. “A Lincoln,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it any more than that. I don’t want it wrecked.” He often came out of arenas to find ice picks in his tires.

Whatever argument existed about the good taste of Larose’s performance, there was no question it was lucrative. People who wished to see him get beaten in programs against the likes of Verne Gagne or Lou Thesz filled arenas. Once, special guest referee Joe Louis decked him in a staged climax. There was some kind of catharsis in watching Larose get pummeled.

Photo (C) by Brian Bukantis, www.wrestleprints.com

According to pro wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, who inducted the Schmidt character into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2012, Larose made roughly $1 million in his 20-year career, which wound to a close in the mid-1970s. Other “foreign menaces” like Nikolai Volkoff and the Iron Sheik were coming in, diversifying wrestling’s villain culture.

The kind of loathing he had drawn from the crowd remained rare in wrestling, which hates its heels but usually doesn’t attempt to stab them or burn them with fire. It wasn’t until Sergeant Slaughter turned away from his patriotism and became an Iraqi sympathizer in the early '90s that emotions got a bit too heated for entertainment’s sake. The WWE (then WWF) was forced to assign security to Slaughter’s family until the act was dropped.

By that point, Larose had long been out of the spotlight, having returned home to Quebec. He died in 2012 at the age of 87, his status as one of the most infamous performers of the 20th century having been largely forgotten. Never once did he admit during his prime that he was from Canada.

“Of course I’m from Germany,” he told Shotwell. “Do you think I’d go on television and say things that weren’t true?”

Additional Sources: Mad Dogs, Midgets, and Screw Jobs: The Untold Story of How Montreal Shaped Wrestling; The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels.

Unless otherwise credited, all photos (C) Dave Drason Burzynski from the book This Saturday Night: Return to the Cobo, available at Wrestleprints.com. Used with permission.

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