Commentary

For love of the jersey, plain is preferred

Updated: June 3, 2009, 4:15 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The beginning of the end of the American sports jersey might have taken place earlier this week when the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury sold their soul -- and the front of their uniform -- to a corporate sponsor. Today, the LifeLocks … tomorrow, the MetLife Yankees?

You think this is the end of it, that the only two teams to use their unis for billboards will be the legendary Bad News Bears (Chico's Bail Bonds) and the WNBA's Mercury (identity theft protection company LifeLock)? Uh, no. Not when NFL executive Brian McCarthy calls his league's jerseys "the most valuable real estate in sports."

[+] EnlargeCappie Pondexter and Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury
Jennifer Pottheiser/NBAE/Getty ImagesSo much for sacred cloth: The WNBA's Phoenix Mercury have abandoned their name on their jerseys in favor of franchise sponsor "LifeLock."

You think Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who is up to his earlobes in bills because of his new, $1.15 billion stadium, wouldn't at least consider selling space on his players' game jerseys? His stadium naming rights are available for the right price, so why not his team's jerseys?

You think the financially challenged Pittsburgh Pirates, averaging just 16,884 fans during their first 23 home games, wouldn't mind getting corporately money-whipped in exchange for their jersey sleeves?

With league approval, it could happen. In fact, there are those in the industry who think it will happen.

"I wouldn't be surprised if five, 10 years down the road, it's something other than the WNBA," said Sean McKinney, president of Mitchell & Ness, which specializes in making classic throwback jerseys. "It almost feels like we're almost on that tipping point."

And this from Sam Kennedy, Boston Red Sox executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer: "If done tastefully, I don't think it would be completely and totally offensive. … From a business perspective and a perspective to try to grow revenues for the game -- after all, it is a business -- I think it would be something worthwhile if [a corporate logo] was attached on a sleeve."

Pause for scream.

Certain inalienable sports rights exist in this country: the right to rag on the concession-stand beer vendor if he doesn't give you a full pour, the right to boo a guy for not running out a ground ball and the right to bear replica, authentic and throwback jerseys.

But the Mercury jersey deal -- admittedly a boutique team in a boutique sport -- will be watched with considerable interest by the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and major college programs. And by you and me, the jersey-loving public. Because if it works there, as it already works in Europe and Asia, what's to stop our leagues here from taking the jersey plunge and tapping into the new revenue streams?

"It's something that we have been studying for years and something that we will continue to study," NBA spokesman Tim Frank said. "The NBA and WNBA have different business models -- there are no plans at the NBA for corporate branding on the player jerseys."

The Carlsberg Celtics? Barf bag, please.

We're not Europe. We like our jerseys with classic pinstripes and elegant interlocking NY emblems, not with the logo of an international insurance company. We like our corporate initials where they belong: on the stock market pages of the Wall Street Journal.

The NFL and partner Reebok sold more than 3 million jerseys last year. You know why? Because in this country, nobody is going to buy a Donovan McNabb Exxon Eagles jersey. The now-defunct NFL Europe could get away with corporate-logoed game "kits," but not here.

"We understand that, the cultural differences and what's accepted and what's not accepted," NFL senior vice president Greg Aiello said. "We're not making any changes."

Not to the actual game jerseys they aren't. But space is available for approved corporate branding on NFL training camp jerseys. The provision was passed in March, and even such conservative and traditional franchises as the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers will consider sticking a company logo on their jerseys "if it's the right opportunity," a team spokesperson said.

OK, a training camp jersey isn't the same thing as a game jersey. In fact, Steelers owner Dan Rooney once sent then-NFL executive vice president Roger Goodell a jersey overgrown with corporate logo patches. The message: The NFL isn't NASCAR, the Premier League or the PGA Tour. And so far, it has stayed that way. For now.

But what do you do if the money is too much to ignore? The Red Sox froze ticket and concession prices this season, partly because the economy tanked and partly because of corporate sponsorship revenue. So if MLB eventually allowed jerseys with corporate logos -- and the deal was right -- Kennedy said it might be worth it. "I don't think it's a bad idea," he said. I do. Those perfect Red Sox unis need a corporate logo the way the All-Star Game needs Manny. (Major League Baseball doesn't allow corporate sponsorship o n jerseys for domestic games, but a spokesman said MLB is "monitoring" developments). Our sports jerseys should be declared national historic landmarks, protected from invasive corporate branding. We can stomach tiny Nike, Adidas, Majestic Athletic, Russell, Under Armour and Reebok logos. But what we really need is more people who think like Jim Carabin, general manager of Crimson Tide Sports Marketing, and John Heisler, senior associate athletic director at Notre Dame.

Our sports jerseys should be declared national historic landmarks, protected from invasive corporate branding. We can stomach tiny Nike, Adidas, Majestic Athletic, Russell, Under Armour and Reebok logos. But what we really need is more people who think like Jim Carabin, general manager of Crimson Tide Sports Marketing, and John Heisler, senior associate athletic director at Notre Dame.

Ask Carabin the chances of seeing soccer-style corporate logos on Bama football jerseys, and he says, "I'm 43. I don't see that in my lifetime."

Ask Heisler whether there's any scenario in which a Fighting Irish uniform would feature soccer-style advertising, and he says, "Virtually everyone connected with Notre Dame is interested in staying as far away from logos and keeping everything from jerseys to stadiums as plain as we can keep them."

Plain is good. I just want to wear a jersey, not be a human bumper sticker. Sorry, I don't want to be a LifeLock.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter