On Monday, the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers became the first major U.S. team to sell an advertisement on its uniform.
The advertiser is StubHub, the ticket-resale site owned by eBay. Beginning with the 2017-18 season, a StubHub patch like the one depicted above will appear on the front left side of players' jerseys. The deal comes on the heels of the NBA board of governors' approval of a three-year pilot program allowing teams to sell jersey sponsorships. ESPN has reported that the 76ers deal is worth $5 million a year.
You can see how both parties in the deal--StubHub and the 76ers--are winners here. For the team, the deal creates bankable revenue. It also cements what has already been a strong partnership with StubHub, the official ticketing partner of the Sixers for both primary and secondary sales.
As for StubHub, its target customer is, of course, a sports fan. The jersey ad brands StubHub as a part of the team, rather than an outside advertiser. In addition, it brands StubHub as a company that is about more than just the buying and selling of tickets. "We, as a company, have been very transaction-oriented," StubHub CEO Scott Cutler, told ESPN. "We want to be more a part of the emotional experience fans have with their teams, and we think a deal like this gets us closer."
The question is, will it bother longtime fans--already bombarded by commercials wherever they turn--that the once sacrosanct (read: free of advertising) uniform now contains something other than the team's nickname or city at the front?
It's an open question, one I asked 76ers CEO Scott O'Neil shortly after the team and StubHub made their announcement. "I'd say Manchester United, Chelsea F.C., and Crystal Palace are doing OK," he says. "Those are world-beating brands." O'Neil is referring to soccer teams in the U.K. Premier League, whose jerseys have long contained advertisements far larger than a little patch on the shoulder. The 76ers are banking on the idea that if a uniform ad doesn't bother impassioned fans of the Premier League, then it won't bother NBA fans, either. O'Neil has unique insight into the issue: His boss, 76ers owner Josh Harris, happens to own a piece of Crystal Palace.
O'Neil acknowledges that "change is not for everyone," and that some traditional-minded fans might be turned off by a commercial alteration to a hallowed basketball uniform. But the way the 76ers look at it, there are numerous factors influencing fan behavior and ticket-buying decisions. One of them is optimism about the team's future. "I think the lottery is far more likely to impact fans than the patch," says O'Neil.
The lottery he's referring to is the annual NBA draft lottery: the random process by which the league determines the order that teams select amateur players. Generally speaking, it's the worst teams that are vying to win the lottery. The 76ers--the NBA's worst team this past regular season--have the best odds of winning this year's lottery, which takes place Tuesday night. To the 76ers' thinking, a victory in the lottery is bound to create fan optimism, for it all but assures the team will add a promising young player to the roster. Get the fans really fired up, and the impact of the StubHub patch on their behavior will be negligible.
So what, then, is the downside of a team ceding a piece of its uniform to a paying sponsor or partner? Strictly speaking in fiscal terms, you may have a hard time making a case that there is a problem. But what about emotional terms? Boston Globe sports columnist Christopher Gasper recently observed:
It's acceptable for an athlete to tell me Nationwide is on his side. But Nationwide is on his jersey. Nope. There must be some safe space in sports where you're not being pitched, prodded, or implored to buy something every second--a place where you can, you know, just enjoy the game. ...The NBA is not stopping with patches, people. This is just the beginning of sartorial sacrilege.
The thing is, it's only sacrilege if you're a sports fan of a certain age. If you're under the age of 10, then uniforms with patches aren't uniforms with patches to you--they're just uniforms. And you'll want to watch them on television--or any other device with a screen on it--as long as they're winning, or providing you with regular doses of fun and hope.