My first interaction with professional sports back in the old country came courtesy of beer and chips sponsorship. In the grotty rain-soaked mid-1980's, football (still can't bring myself to use the word soccer) was strapped for cash, and even the top flight teams were creative (read: desperate) to attract inward investment to their club to keep the lights on and the tea lady in work.
Fearing not for its brand or more importantly the health of its fan base, Leicester City proudly displayed the corporate brands of such local dietary delights on their playing shirts year after year (and if the logo below looks familiar, just replace Walkers with Lays and all of a sudden it's more familiar). In the lesser days of my club, victorious opposition fans would even mock us by shouting "We don't want Walkers, we've got runners" as our team was often outpaced around the park. Certain millennials may be shocked to learn this duopoly of distaste only ceased in 2001 when, after a fleeting flirtation with a Korean Electronics firm, more wholesome local banks and firms peddling tiles and cameras found their way onto the front of replica shirts.
Smarter heads prevailed across the UK in 2003 when a total ban on sporting sponsorship by unhealthy products such as tobacco forced clubs to look in a different direction, ironically to the next best vice - online gambling. Why does any of this matter to the casual hoops head in the US you may ask - the NBA is on the verge of embarking on a similar strike into shirt sponsorship.
This started with the under the radar move of Mr. West's logo relocation to the neck of the jersey to free up vital real estate on the front lapels. Cleverly disguised further by the addition of another footballing steal, recognition of the team's championships sitting on the neck line just above the new logo - akin to the stars above your nation's crest on football shirts at the World Cup. There's a joke here about the US Soccer Team never winning a World Cup and so not knowing this, but since England only has the one solitary star from their World Cup win way back in the 1960's, we'll move swiftly along.
Even the most ardent of traditionalists will think such a small patch won't change the overall product of the NBA, but it's to these people that I offer up another first in my life, my graduate job. The 2000-01 season was my first coaching job under current Toronto Raptors Assistant Coach, Nick Nurse, with the London Towers Pro Basketball Franchise and a historic one at that, which saw us stagger onto the fledgling European stage in the opening season of the Euroleague. Looking back, the front office cared for its fans as much as footballers some 20 years earlier and inked a confectionary manufacturer, HARIBO, to display itself above our oversized logo (right).
The following season, a new sponsor in the same sector, Kinder chocolate, demanded a larger chunk of our jersey, and so the logo was relegated to the make way for the football-like major sponsor space on the chest (left). Finally the envelope was pushed to the limit with the addition of a product along with the brand (below) and all taste in brand identity and fashion sense was lost.
Other than a brief history lesson into the Euroleague’s worst team of all time, who neophytes like Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobilli, and Andrei Kirilenko routinely pummeled into submission on their way to the NBA, it offers up a more compelling and current comparison. The London Club’s player budget was dwarfed on a nightly basis by the likes of CSKA Moscow, Real Madrid, and FC Barcelona, whose 12th man was paid more than all 12 of the Londoners combined. Thus linking the topical grumblings of every small market NBA franchise today and how that will translate into jersey sponsorship gains.
There’s every chance it may level the playing field some for the struggling, with the big city Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Brooklyn Nets all playing catch up with smaller markets like Cleveland, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. However, something tells me that this won’t be an argument that holds much water at Association board meetings.
The present day sports industry isn’t likely to repeat the mistakes of its footballing forefathers but the complaints about vice like sponsors such as the banished tobacco companies are growing louder to include online gambling firms which currently comprise 35% of the English Premier League Football Club shirt sponsors. Oddly, those deals are reserved for the smaller market teams with only a combined total of 23,000,000 pounds ($33 million) this season. In comparison, Manchester United’s deal with U.S. car manufacturer Chevrolet is for 53,000,000 pounds ($77 million) and stands as the largest in world sport. Even with the well documented decision of most United’s players to decline to drive their free Chevy cars, the link between an American car manufacturer and the American owner of Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL, Malcolm Glazer, is an obvious one. Even Leicester City’s miniscule million pound sponsorship deal with King Power comes directly from the Club’s Thai owner’s other business interests in global Duty Free sales.
Regardless, the Red Devil’s hold on that record deal will last only as long as the NBA’s willingness to keep jerseys ad-free given the handicap it gives the Lakers' and Knicks' top-ten positions on Forbes' rich list of sports franchises (6th and 8th respectively). Surely it will help propel them towards Real Madrid and the New York Yankees (2nd and 4th respectively in 2015) even if they can’t supplant America’s team, the $4 billion Dallas Cowboys at the top. But any claim by the NBA to become America’s Game will doubtless be dashed if their future sponsorship holds with football’s current form, where 70% of English Premier League teams proudly wear international company logos on their chest.
TV revenue drives these valuations in many respects and is the sole reason for the Lakers having more National TV games than 20 other teams with better records than them – this playing field is far from level. Just ask the resurgent Pistons who won’t feature on the national stage this year at all, let alone the Knicks who have as many appearances as the Magic, Hornets, Raptors and Jazz combined. But it’s the global reach of those shirt deals that really adds value if the round ball world of football is to be believed. The TV rights and sponsors for English Premier League Clubs garner them more than twice that of their nearest rival, Germany’s Bundesliga at $163 million. The trickle-down effect may be somewhat top-heavy as we’ve seen, but regardless, each club in England’s top flight nets $16 million on average which is more than their Spanish, Italian, and French rivals combined. It's oddly the reverse of Europe’s basketball scene where England’s finest have always come up a dollar short if not a day late.
What is for sure is that the coming months and years will offer up a myriad of scenarios to play out across the board room, months before they ever hit the locker room. All-Star Saturday Night paved the way for this year’s KIA branded main event jersey patches, which sparked a suggestion from TNT to offer similar perks to them. Next up could be MJ’s Hornets partnering with a certain Jumpman brand to further their global reach regardless of the NBA apparel manufacturer at the time. Or Mark Cuban’s Network TV interests clashing with the NBA’s broadcast partners of choice. Here’s hoping that the longest tenured owners in small markets like Utah and Indiana can keep pace with the changes since their purchases in the 1980's.
Looking back, my first boozy, junk food memories of sport were in the stands of the now demolished Filbert Street stadium, built in 1891 and now a car park after 111 years of service to sport, named simply after the street it was located on rather than a supermarket or airline. Given what’s to come, the next generation of NBA fans will experience a much higher demand for their attention from all around the world, wherever or however they choose to watch.