- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

So NFL teams are slapping corporate logos on their practice jerseys. The WNBA is letting teams sell jersey sponsorships - even for regular season games.

The slope is getting slippery, and everyone knows where it’s heading. It’s time to dispense with the notion of team uniforms as sacred ground and let these types of deals grow.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the coming doom, but more likely it is simply a realization that, above all else, sports teams are businesses. Owners are under constant pressure to raise revenue, even when the economy is tough. And if they’re not getting it from sponsors, they’re getting it from fans in the form of higher prices for tickets, merchandise and concessions. Space on jerseys, particularly those that appear on television, is a valuable thing to have and sell.

Granted, many teams still like to squeeze every last dollar from the paying public even when they are flush with cash from other sources. But any additional revenue at all could free up teams to offer a few more cheap seats or stave off that annual price increase for a year.

The United States seems to be the only country with a philosophical aversion to ads on uniforms. It’s been commonplace on soccer jerseys worldwide for decades, and most Japanese baseball uniforms are emblazoned with corporate logos.

Henry Abbott, who pens the TrueHoop blog on ESPN.com, is of the mind that the NBA should go ahead and sell jersey rights.

“It’s something that could bring in big dollars, while the cost - a little visual distraction - is minimal,” he wrote this week.

Most fans would love a corporate-free environment when they attend a game. A ballpark or arena experience free from ubiquitous signage or commercials on the big screen would be refreshing. But that ship has sailed. Teams should be free to negotiate sponsorship deals.

Jersey sponsorships likely will be trickier than typical deals, however. For one thing, it will not always make sense for teams simply to go after top dollar. Because merchandise sales make up a good chunk of a team’s revenue, the corporate logo on the jersey must be something that fans can be happy wearing. Manchester United got stung last year when insurance giant and jersey sponsor AIG emerged as a major culprit in the global financial crisis. The team officially dropped AIG in June and signed a new deal with Aon that will take effect in 2010.

D.C. United’s deal with Volkswagen has proved to be a stroke of genius because it tied the team to a respected brand but didn’t clutter up the uniform with something obnoxious. The Volkswagen logo is clean and recognizable, and no fan should be embarassed to wear a team jersey because of its presence. But a deal with an offbeat company such as GoDaddy.com would be hard for some fans to swallow.

Sponsors, meanwhile, may need to get honest with themselves about how recognizable their corporate logos actually are. For some companies, like Volkswagen, McDonald’s or Apple, the logo is practically synonymous with the brand. Toyota, Herbalife and Zappos, for example, are companies with logos that aren’t quite as impactful.

There’s also the complex issue of team and individual sponsors. New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, for instance, has been forced to shed his practice jersey for all on-camera interviews during training camp because the team’s deal with Timex conflicts with his personal deal with competitor Citizen. But such disputes are easily resolved. With millions of dollars in revenue at stake, teams and leagues would be silly to eschew jersey deals based on an antiquated notion of purity.

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