Six mannequin torsos – three wearing Chicago Bulls jerseys and three sporting Boston Celtics jerseys – sat on tables before NBA owners in a meeting room at the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.
The jerseys were unlike any that the Bulls and the Celtics currently wear. All sported a corporate name or logo – and were sartorial harbingers of the NBA's future.
The presentation to the league's board of governors strongly suggested that the NBA might be the first major sports league in the United States to allow its players to wear advertising. If the NBA agrees, its players will join golfers, soccer players around the world, NASCAR and IndyCar drivers, and WNBA players, some of whom have worn corporate logos or names since 2009.
Jeanie Buss, the Los Angeles Lakers' executive vice-president for business operations, said that adding advertising to uniforms was worth discussing in part because other leagues had embraced the practice.
"I like tradition and I actually still miss the short shorts of the '80s," she said in an e-mail message, "so perhaps it is better the Lakers management fully discuss the subject internally and come to a consensus."
For years, NBA, major-league baseball, NFL and NHL teams have changed their uniform styles and designs to increase merchandise sales, keep up with fashion trends or herald a new era, as the Miami Marlins just did. Patches have been added to remember a former player or manager who died (the New York Mets are wearing one as a memorial to Gary Carter). But advertising has not broken through; after Major League Baseball considered putting logos on players' sleeves in 1999, commissioner Bud Selig rejected the idea.
Adam Silver, the NBA's deputy commissioner, said in an e-mail: "If we add sponsor logos to jerseys, we recognize that some of our fans will think we've lost our minds. But the NBA is a global business and logos on jerseys are well established in other sports and commonplace outside the U.S. Our goal isn't to be the first major league to do it, but in the same way that virtually all arenas and stadiums now have naming rights deals, we recognize it's only a matter of time."
At the presentation, the sets of jerseys for the Bulls and the Celtics displayed three variations: a jersey with the team name stripped away and replaced by a corporate name; a second with a company name beneath the uniform number; and a third with the corporation's logo on the jersey strap.
In addition to seeing the jersey-clad mannequins, owners were briefed on the finances of deals between English Premier League soccer teams and jersey sponsors. The arrangement that put Aon, a global insurance broker based in Chicago, on Manchester United jerseys is worth a reported $80-million (all currency U.S.) over four years. Other jersey sponsors in the Premier League include Emirates (Arsenal) and Samsung (Chelsea).
At a news conference last week, Silver said that the owners' reactions to the presentation ranged from, "Let's not do anything like that" to "Why aren't we considering it for next season?"
He said the uniform show-and-tell was the beginning of a "relatively long process."
Russ Granik, the league's former deputy commissioner, said: "I don't view this as one of the great moral issues of our time. I think they'll be careful not to mess up the uniform in a way that will detract from business."
Granik, vice-chairman of Galatioto Sports Partners, added, "I don't see a time in the near or medium-term future where the name on the uniform would be changed to a commercial name."
Ben Sturner, the chief executive officer of Leverage Agency, a sports marketing firm, said one reason the uniforms in the major U.S.-based sports leagues did not have logos was that they were regarded as "sacred."
For the NBA, he said, a patch on the jersey strap "would make the most sense; it would be a compromise and it could pop."
The WNBA has served as a uniform advertising laboratory for nearly three years.
In 2009, the Phoenix Mercury signed a three-year deal worth at least $1-million annually with LifeLock, the identity theft protection company, to replace the name on its jersey with the company's name.
At the time of the deal, Rick Welts, then the president of the Phoenix Suns, who own the Mercury, offered a business rationale for turning players into billboards in motion.
"This is inventory that's not available any other place," said Welts, now president of the Golden State Warriors. "Every photograph, every piece of game footage, becomes part of the picture."
LifeLock has since renewed its deal.
"We don't look at it to directly add new members," said Marvin Davis, the company's chief marketing officer, "but as part of our overall brand program." He said he was not aware of any anticommercialism sentiment from fans objecting to LifeLock's name on the jerseys.
Four teams followed the Mercury-LifeLock deal with similar ones: the Liberty, with Foxwoods Resort; the Los Angeles Sparks (Farmers Insurance); the Seattle Storm (Bing); and the Washington Mystics (Inova Health System). Then, last season, Boost Mobile acquired the rights to add its logo beneath the players' numbers on the jerseys of 10 of the 12 W.NBA teams.
The minor-league arm of the NBA, the Development League, has also moved into uniform advertising. Three teams – the Erie BayHawks, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Texas Legends – have logos beneath their numbers. And the D League said this week that BBVA, the NBA's official bank, would have its logo added to the back of player jerseys, above the numbers, during the playoffs, which have begun.
One indication of the value of jersey sponsorship was found in the 10-year, $40-million extension of Herbalife's sponsorship of the Los Angeles Galaxy's jersey fronts, the richest in Major League Soccer.
The trend began in 2007, when Red Bull acquired the MetroStars and put its name on the team's jerseys. Today, 15 of MLS's 19 teams have jersey front sponsors. Bank of Montreal's BMO logo, for example, adorns Toronto FC's kits.
New York Times News Service