Should there be ads on uniforms?

Updated: June 10, 2009, 12:40 PM ET
By Scoop Jackson and Paul Lukas | Page 2

With the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury essentially becoming the Phoenix Lifelock, this got Paul Lukas and Scoop Jackson thinking: What would happen if the rest of the major sports league's followed suit?

Uniform purist Paul Lukas takes the side of the ad-free unis, while Scoop Jackson thinks we need to take a page from Europe and accept the reality that this isn't as bad as it looks.

Let the debate begin ...

Scoop Jackson: And the problem is?

In America we have become accustomed to simply seeing and accepting ads placed on the chest, backs, sleeves and/or shorts of athletes that perform in individual sports -- golf, NASCAR, boxing, tennis, track, etc. And because we've self-imposed such an unhealthy aversion to soccer, it has become almost impossible for us to fathom seeing anything more than a team's name, city or a player's number (and somewhere small and almost hidden the uniform manufacturer) on a uniform. The cleanness sells us. It makes us believe that the sport and athletes we are watching are not for sale.

But professional sports are always for sale (hence the word: professional). AIG (bad example from a financial standpoint, I know, but still ...) has been aesthetically associated with Manchester United for years. Yet, even with a small patch indicating the team, Man U. has become -- from a jersey and global identification perspective -- one of the most recognized institutions in sports. No one even thinks they've sold out by having AIG as a sponsor. Winning erases all of those thoughts.

Paul Lukas: You've raised a lot of points here, Scoop. One at a time:

1. I don't have a problem with ads being worn by the athletes in individual sports. Boxing doesn't have a team uniform; golf doesn't have a team uniform (well, except in the Ryder Cup, but you know what I mean). You root for or against the individual athletes, and the way they choose to dress themselves -- with or without ad sponsorships -- is part of that package.

2. But I think team sports are different, because the relationship between a fan and a team is pretty unique on the consumer landscape. Consider: The individual players come and go, but you still keep rooting for those colors, that logo, that uniform, even if the quality of the team goes up or down. That's a very special kind of brand loyalty (if the quality of your favorite brand of cereal wasn't consistent, you'd switch to something else in a second), and it deserves not to be sullied by the presence of another brand. If I'm rooting for the 49ers, all I want to think about is the 49ers. I don't want to have to look at a Visa patch, or whatever.

3. It's funny how people who'd never eat a snail or drink warm ale are so quick to embrace European culture when it comes to jersey advertising. It's true that soccer, like most European sports, has a long history of jersey sponsorships -- not just in soccer but also for their hockey and basketball teams. Even NFL Europe's uniforms looked ridiculous.

Do you really want to go down that road, Scoop? Because once you start, there's no going back. Advertising and marketing work like a ratchet: They go in only one direction, never back. So once you take the first step, and then the next step, you've established the new standard and everyone rushes in to copy it. That's how we ended up with sponsors for the starting lineup, the first pitch of the game, and everything else. Don't you find that annoying? I do, and I'd find an ad on a uniform even more so.

4. Yes, "professional" teams are business entities. But they're also civic entities -- that's why we're so nuts about them! They carry the names of our cities and states, and they're a source of local pride (or shame, as the case might be). We live and die with them. And civic institutions should not be for sale. You wouldn't want a Jiffy Lube logo on City Hall, or a state to change its name to "American Express Presents Illinois!" right? (And if you think those are extreme examples, imagine how ridiculous "the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl" and "the FedEx Orange Bowl" would have sounded 20 years ago.) I'm not saying a team uniform is on the same level as the name of a state, but I do think it's worth framing the discussion in that context.

Jackson: Look, the Yankees have been "sponsored" by adidas for years. So you are telling me that the public would think they'd sold out if they decided to don an adidas patch on their pinstriped uni? That little patch, that ad, regardless of placement, would make people think differently and negatively about the Yankees?

Lukas: As relentlessly revenue-driven as the Yankees are, they're actually much more sensitive to the value of their team brand -- and much better at safeguarding it -- than most franchises are. That's why their uniforms haven't changed in decades. That's why they never had any interest in signing a naming rights deal for their stadium. The whole "Yankee tradition" shtick can get tiresome, but at least they understand that no corporate alliance could be more powerful or valuable than the value they've already built up in the words "New York Yankees." Yes, the Yankees brand has built-in advantages that other franchises don't have, but that's partly because they've stayed the course and had faith in who and what they are. It would nice if other teams had the stones to rely on their own product instead of watering it down with other brands.

Jackson: What about the Patriots? Or the Steelers? You're saying a Geico or Progressive ad, a Coca-Cola or Pepsi or Red Bull ad, a Starbucks, McDonald's, 7/11, Mobil, Exxon, Avis, Gillette, Ecko UnLtd, John Deere, Visa, Microsoft, Citi, UPS, Samsung, Levi's or Prada ad on a jersey is going to change the way we historically feel about the team? For real?

Lukas: For reals, Scoop. Would an ad patch on my favorite team's jersey be a crippling blow that would lead me to boycott? No. But for me -- and, I'm fairly certain, for many fans -- it would be the latest in a long series of drip-drip-drip maneuvers that have led to a tremendous degree of cynicism about sports. I think this type of marketing takes a very real toll in terms of fan attitudes, to the point where watching sports becomes more of a chore and less of a pleasure. You know what I'm talking about, Scoop -- all those little annoyances that make you roll your eyes and say, "Yeah, it's stupid, but whaddaya gonna do?" Here, I'll tell you exactly what you do: You don't put ads on uniforms.

Granted, I care about uniforms more than most people -- that's why I write about them -- but I get enough feedback from my readers to know I'm not the only one who feels this way.

Jackson: I understand as well as anyone the landmark status some of these uniforms have in our sports culture. But as long as it doesn't get out of control and team unis don't start looking like something Tony Stewart or Helio Castroneves would wear to work, then I don't think that much damage will/could be done.

Lukas: And who will define what "out of control" means? Don't you think it's likely that teams and leagues are going to define it very differently than you would?

Jackson: Well, teams can get greedy. So maybe I'm being na´ve. But Paul, let's be honest, the WNBA has been cash/credit/financially strapped for years. I've been waiting for the government to submit a bailout stimulus package for them similar to the one GM just got. The fact that they decided to add sponsorships to their jerseys is relevant to their continued quite. It's an evil necessity. So let's not all of a sudden attach what happened in the WNBA to what might happen to the rest of sports here. It's not like the WNBA is known for setting trends in the professional sports world.

Lukas: Hey, you're the one who said, "evil," not me. Anyway, yes, your point is well taken. And in addition to the WNBA, uni ads also appear in minor league hockey, arena football, and, of course, Little League. I think for "minor" leagues like these, uni advertising is more forgivable. But the WNBA example is still disturbing for three reasons:

1. The Phoenix Mercury aren't just wearing an ad patch -- they've essentially become Team Lifelock.

2. The WNBA is backed by the NBA, which gives the move a legitimacy and visibility that goes beyond the minor league ranks.

3. Within a week of the Phoenix Mercury announcement, the Los Angeles Sparks struck a similar deal with Farmers Insurance and at least four NFL teams announced that they'd start wearing ad patches on their practice jerseys (for details, look here, here, here and here). Personally, I don't care what teams wear during practices -- I'm all about game day -- but the fact that these moves came immediately after the Mercury news is no coincidence. It's another turn of the ratchet.

Jackson: I do understand the "purity" in all of this. I understand that the last thing we want our professional sports teams to come off as is sellouts. And 25 years from now, when a KG Timberwolves jersey will be a hot throwback item (or a Larry Fitzgerald Arizona joint or a Dustin Pedroia Red Sox jersey), it's going to be hard to embrace those unis if they have the logo of some (by then) defunct company taking up space on the shoulder plate. I get all that.

But in this day and age, we have to understand, as much as uniforms are about the fashion, they still mean nothing if the players rep'ing did nothing while he or she was wearing it. And regardless of how many ads they throw on a jersey, nothing will supersede the player or team that the uni belongs to, whether I buy it off the rack or it's hanging in the Hall of Fame.

Lukas: But here's the thing: Most jerseys don't get sold as merch or end up in the Hall of Fame. Most of them are worn by solid, journeymen players who aren't stars -- they're just players who come and go, representing the teams that we love. So I don't agree that the uniform supersedes the player; I think it's the other way around, because the player can be traded, injured or released tomorrow, and suddenly you're rooting for a new guy wearing that logo, those colors, that uniform. And that's why the uniform should not be plastered with commercials.

Jackson: Did Tiger's win the other day at the Memorial seem less important or significant than the ones in 1999 or 2004? If you go back, you'll see Tiger wearing a Nike cap with nothing but the company swoosh on the front. Now his cap looks like a four-ring circus, with his personal logo on the front, Nike all the way in the back, "One" on the side and a "V" on the other. Part of Tiger's "uniform" has become a walking advertisement. It's one more brand away from being ... corporately gaudy. But did it affect how he played Sunday and how we tend to assess him historically? No. We all looked past the cap, we looked past the changes. All we saw was victory. And from there, we as fans will determine if the right company aligned itself with the right client.

Lukas: But again, golf is an individual sport. No matter what Tiger wears, Tiger is Tiger is Tiger -- you root for (or against) him. But team sports are different. Let's say, hypothetically, I'm a Mets fan who hates the Yankees. Now let's further say that the entire Mets team is traded, even-up, for the entire Yankees team this afternoon -- 25 guys for 25 guys. Who do I root for tomorrow? It's a no-brainer: I root for the 25 guys who are now wearing Mets uniforms, even if I hated them yesterday. That's the power of a team uniform, and that power shouldn't be cheapened with advertising.

Jackson: Man, when the Forum became the Great Western Forum and the Garden became the TD Banknorth Garden, it was just a matter of time before Gordon Gekko crept down to the unis. Like I've always said: The B in NBA doesn't stand for basketball, it stands for business. And that applies to all sports. It's time we acknowledge the state of professional sports for what it's become: big pimpin', baby.

Lukas: Hey, sports has always been about business. You think old-school owners like Charles Comiskey or George Halas weren't ruthless capitalists? Filing all of this under the category of "Hey, it's just business" is too easy, too reductive. It assumes that every human interaction can be boiled down to its monetary value, which is a sad way of looking at the world. Indeed, the things we value most -- love, faith, art, family, nature, community, genius, etc. -- transcend monetary issues. That's a big part of why they're so special. I'm not saying the bond between fan and team is as hallowed as those other things I just listed, but a lot of those words (love, faith, community, etc.) do apply to our relationships with our teams. You can't simply write off those relationships as "It's just business."

And hey, since you brought up Gordon Gekko, here's a thought: There's a difference between capitalism and greed; there's a difference between promoting your product and corrupting it. To me, uniform advertising falls on the wrong side of those lines.

Jackson: Bottom line, Paul: It's a patch. A small patch with a few letters or a logo. As our guy/co-worker Patrick Hruby said to me, "Ads on uniforms are no more garish from a visual standpoint than Chris Andersen's tats." Or A.I.'s, or LeBron's. They are what they are. It's just become our job to accept it.

Lukas: I completely disagree. Tats are a part of a player's personal expression, like his hair. Patches on the uniform are neither personal nor expressive -- they're just unsightly splotches on a canvas that should be reserved for the team's insignia and colors. And as someone who writes about uniforms for a living, believe me when I tell you not to underestimate the power of a few letters or a logo -- they have more clout than you may realize.

Jackson: But Paul, you've seen some of the unis these teams wear -- they're ugly as Phyllis Diller. Placing ads on them would be an improvement.

Lukas: I think we've finally found a point we can agree upon.

Scoop Jackson | email columnist