- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

Picture a Pepsi logo in place of Shaquille O'Neal's now-famous Superman tattoo on his left bicep. Or Bell Atlantic's ubiquitous green and blue wave logo painted on the the previously unspoiled Camden Yards outfield grass.

Just nonsensical figments of a sports fan's imagination?

Guess again.

O'Neal and Pepsi have not cut a deal to rework the art on his arm. Nor are painters pulling up to Camden Yards. But sports marketers and sponsorship experts nationwide are working furiously to mine pro leagues and stadiums for new avenues to reach the ever-elusive sports fan.

With most of the existing marketing methods like stadium naming rights, bowl sponsorship and backstop ads nearly exhausted after barely a decade of mainstream existence, no new idea is too ridiculous to discount immediately.

"Anything or anyplace that is high-profile and gets exposure is going to be subject to discussion," for corporate sponsorship, said David Cope, president of Gilco Sports & Entertainment Marketing in Bethesda, Md. "Companies are still looking to sports for unique and significant ways to reach consumers, particularly young and middle-aged males, and are really starting to think outside the box."

While the idea of players sporting corporate tattoos so far remains just theory, many other marketing ideas considered absurd not long ago have seen the light of day. In just the past two years, Major League Baseball has experimented with corporate logos on uniforms after decades of resistance. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, seeking to firm up their legacy within baseball annals, have paid slugger Jose Canseco an undisclosed six-figure sum to wear a Devil Rays hat on his Hall of Fame plaque if he's elected.

Corporate logos visibly only to TV viewers have been superimposed by computer onto tennis and basketball courts, racetrack infields and between football goal posts. And of course, the Washington Redskins this summer became the first U.S. pro team to charge fans admission for practice sessions. Team and leagues across each of the respective leagues are closely watching each of these developments and are mulling similar ventures.

But that's just the start. Now in the works: corporate sponsorship for starting lines and control towers in auto racing, naming rights for golf courses, virtual ads on golf fairways and eventually, an American acceptance of the selling of the team names that is common in European soccer.

"It's very simple, really. Teams continue to insist they're struggling to generate revenue and make ends meet," said Sean Brenner, managing editor of IEG Sponsorship Report, a trade journal tracking sports sponsorship. "Ticket sales seems to be reaching something of a ceiling in many markets, TV revenues won't go up like they have forever, and a lot of teams haven't figured out how to make money off their Web sites. Fan resistance to corporate names of stadiums and parts of stadiums has clearly subsided, so teams clearly have a need and an incentive to find new avenues."

The moves beg two simple questions: will we ever get to a point where corporate America's reach into pro sports is truly exhausted? And will fans finally rebel the mass of corporate presence and resist sports in mass numbers?

Not anytime soon, industry experts say.

"For younger fans, it's expected, and unique when a team doesn't sell the naming rights to its building and sell ads all around the facility. It's almost like a trivia contest for many of them to match up stadiums with their corporate names," said Richard Irwin, professor of sports marketing at the University of Memphis, and a consultant to FedEx Corp., which last year agreed to pay a record $205 million over 27 years to rename Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

"Sponsorship and sports has been elevated to such an important status now that it's been around long enough that we can generate some quantifiable, serious academic research on it and conclude that it works. So if there is a spot or place that hasn't been used and can generate incremental income for both sponsor and team, you can bet it's going to happen," Irwin said.

The key problem looming in the distance, however, with all the corporate proliferation is when a sponsorship contract expires or is defaulted upon. Going from a generic name or nothing to corporate name clearly gives a corporation marketing value. But replacing one corporate name for another presents a much greater marketing challenge.

Most contracts are either so new or are written for such a long time that the problem hasn't surfaced much yet. But the Miami Dolphins already have found out the hard way what can happen with its Pro Player Stadium. Fruit of the Loom Inc., the parent company of Pro Player, filed in December for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, ended its contract with the Dolphins, and left the team scrambling for a new sponsor. The NFL has since joined in to help with the search.

Less prominent leagues such as Major League Soccer have leaped ahead of many of the larger competitors in new forms of sponsorship, placing oversized corporate logos all over team uniforms and TV telecasts during play. But even MLS has stopped short of corporate tattoos for players so far.

"It sounds silly, but I have no doubt it's going to happen. If the money's right, somebody's going to do it," Irwin said.

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