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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March 20, 2014 - 2:26pm
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