Sports Uniforms Nothing More than Laundry

 

So the NBA has come up with a plan to have special uniforms on certain days with players’ nicknames instead of their last names on the back.

Normally this would inspire a collective yawn, except sports fans think of team uniforms with the same reverence that they would give the Shroud of Turin. The uniform is sacred, and anything that desecrates the uniform is blasphemy.

The uniform does keep fans interested in teams from generation to generation and as players come and go. There is no real rhyme or reason for caring about a shirt, but fans view the uniform as a deity.

Minor league side FC New York – coached by former Millwall and Gillingham striker Paul Shaw - accepted an anonymous donation to sport the Republican’s slogan ‘Believe in America’ during their 2012 season in the National Premier Soccer League.

One comic had it right about sports teams’ uniforms.  Jerry Seinfeld observed that sports fans root for laundry.

But the laundry that is attached to the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the National Football League or the National Hockey League seems nobler to fans that the average professional golfer, tennis player or race car driver who are walking billboards.

The story is that some games between the Miami Heat and the Brooklyn Nets could include shirts worn by LeBron James and Paul Pierce having their nicknames instead of their last names on the back. Seemingly. it really is no big deal. After all, in the short lived XFL, the football league that functioned in 2001, the league’s most marketable player was “He Hate Me.”

Rod Smart was a player with Las Vegas, but no one knew who Rod Smart was. “He Hate Me” was the best selling jersey that the XFL featured. Smart became just another player during his brief NFL career.

Back in 1965, Wahoo McDaniel’s #54 New York Jets shirt had “Wahoo” on the back, not “McDaniel.” Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson’s nickname “Hawk” on the back of his Cleveland Indians shirt.

Ted Turner assigned the nickname “Channel” to Andy Messersmith’s back and #17 jersey to promote his cable TV station, Channel 17, in 1976. Major League Baseball stopped that promotion. Turner also put other players’ nicknames on the backs of Braves shirts. In the NBA, Elvin Hayes had just his nickname “E” on the back of his Houston Rockets shirt.

The nicknames didn’t take away from the shirts. In fact other than some talk about Messersmith’s shirt, “Wahoo,” “Hawk” and “E” have faded into the past.

The uniform provides a link between fans and the team, but it’s also a tool with which to drive merchandising dollars, loonies, euros or even a ruble. The Toronto Raptors NBA franchise has turned over the look of their franchise to a performer named Drake who seemingly will redevelop the Toronto Raptors brand much in the same way Jay-Z did for the Brooklyn Nets.

While a shirt may be sacred to fans, it’s not for a team owner. It may be just another place to place advertising or completely makeover the brand, which may be the impetus for sales.

In 2012, there wasn’t much of an uproar from sports fans when it was announced that a low-level soccer team, FC New York, was planning to plaster Mitt Romney’s name on the front of the club’s “football kit” complete with a campaign slogan. FC New York plays in what is regarded as a fourth-tier league at a college stadium in Queens, N.Y., as a member of the 48 team National Premier Soccer League (NPSL).

The NPSL was strictly a mom-and-pop store affair. According to someone with knowledge of the circuit’s business plan, the entire budget for a season comes in around $40,000. A Romney supporter who didn’t divulge his or her name decided that for $15,000, he or she would help out not only FC New York, but Romney as well. He or she would buy the uniform space.

FC New York gladly took the money, but the team was unable to sport Romney’s name on the shirts. In football, you can plaster just about any name and sponsor on your kit except political advertising.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s (FIFA) Law 4 prohibits the use of equipment displaying political slogans or statements. So FC New York’s plan to wear the shirts with Romney across the front was scuttled, and the team could not use the Romney/Believe in America shirts during a game against the New York Red Bulls under 23 team in Mineola, N.Y. in late June.

Football or soccer along with auto racing have no problems tarnishing the sanctity of what eventually gets thrown into a washing machine — a team shirt. Manchester United, arguably the most famous brand in sports, donned shirts with AIG in the front and continued to wear the AIG logo for about a year after the company was in financial ruin and was bailed out by American taxpayers. Man U had a multi-year, multimillion dollar with AIG, and a deal is a deal.

Supporters of ManU bought the kits that had AIG on the front and proudly wore the shirt. They bought one for the team.

FIFA has a good policy keeping political sponsors off of the team’s shirts. It doesn’t pay to get half of a fan base angry because you took money from a politician to plaster his name on a uniform.

NASCAR has no problem with politically based advertising. American Majority, which has ties to the Tea Party, has sponsored driver Jason Bowles in 2012. Politicians have sponsored teams in the past in an odd race here and there, so NASCAR officials have no problems with the possibility of angering some of the sport’s fan base.

In 2004, politicians ran to NASCAR events seeking the so-called NASCAR fan vote.

But soccer, football, tennis, golf and auto racing have always accepted uniform sponsorship, although the sponsorship for tennis players and golfers shirts is extremely subtle. Could America’s major sports — Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association — big time college sports and the National Hockey League be headed down the same path as Major League Soccer, where team logos have been replaced by sponsors?

The answer is yes.

Fans have come to worship the “Pinstripes” or cheer for Big Blue or Big Red and probably have more respect for the uniforms than the sports owners. The shirt is unused inventory in marketing. There is just a logo to be sold.

Teams sell everything else, hockey dasher boards are loaded with ads, the NBA sells courtside ads, Major League Baseball parks outfield walls, and the area behind home plate along with the dugout are plastered with ads. There is just one clean spot left: the uniform.

Baseball fans were upset in 2004 after Major League Baseball sold the bases and the foul pole at selected games between June 11 and June 12 to promote the opening of a Spiderman movie. MLB would have pocketed about $3.6 million in the deal between Major League Baseball Properties, Marvel Studios and Columbia Pictures, but an outcry from fans, baseball scribes and media wasn’t ignorable, and MLB forewent the idea.

MLB still is not selling bases, at least not yet. But if the NHL can sell spots on the ice, MLB will start selling ads on the field. The NHL-NBA and MLB are joined at the hip with cross-ownership and cable TV partnerships. If one is selling a playing arena, it is only a matter of time before others jump into the act.

In 2012, the Oakland A’s and the Seattle Mariners wore advertiser logos on their batting helmets. Oakland also wore a patch bought by a company named Gloops.

Japanese baseball fans have no problems with uniform advertising, nor does MLB. Major League Baseball has opened its season in Japan four times (New York Mets-Chicago Cubs in 2000, the New York Yankees-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2004, the Oakland A’s-Boston Red Sox in 2008 and in 2012) and in every series, teams have worn advertising patches and batting helmet decals.

To Americans, the practice is probably akin to painting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. But to the sports industry, wearing short advertising is just another revenue stream.

National Basketball Association (NBA) ownership has been studying a plan to plaster company names on NBA shirts. The owners are treading lightly, but NBA ownership has to look at the big picture.

Globally, teams are making money by splashing a company’s logo in exchange for money on their shirts. Why should an NBA owner lose out on that revenue source?

There is nothing sacred about a uniform. It’s a piece of cloth that is worn by a human being. But fans are strange. There is a connection, not to the athlete, but to the piece of what is destined to become dirty laundry. A logo is sacred.

During his final year as MLB commissioner, Peter Ueberroth once told this reporter (after MLB inked Fuji as the industry’s official sponsor) that the most important part of a team is not a player, a coach or an owner. It is the team logo, he said, and all leagues should protect the logo.

But that seems to be just a United Sports and Canadian respect for the uniform.

Football kits are different in Barcelona; the local football team has the Qatar Foundation on the front and UNICEF on the back. Messi’s number 10 is clearly seen along with UNICEF. The Qatar Foundation overwhelms the kit’s front.

Leagues and sports organization in the US and Canada protect the logo on the shirt. They have made sure the logo is front and center on shirts and football helmets. But there are already ads on uniforms. The uniform manufacturer has represented along with the team logo. It is subtle, but it’s there.

FC New York never had a chance to get onto the field with the Romney shirts. FIFA has limits, but the little noticed team got some attention in the middle of the baseball season and near the end of the NBA Finals by accepting $15,000 from someone who liked Romney enough to pay for shirt advertising.

It is unlikely that FC New York will ever get that kind of notice again. But FC New York did prove one thing: The uniform is not a sacred piece of clothing that needs to be treated with awe and reverence. It is just a shirt and advertising space.

FC New York and other teams should put up a sign that says, “This space for rent.” That is what a uniform is really worth.

Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at evanjweiner@gmail.com. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.

 

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