Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Corporate Takeover Of The NBA


When I moved back to Minnesota from USC, I left a lot of stuff behind for my extended family to store.  I should try and get them back, someway.

Among all of the clothes and sundry items I left for them to take care of (there has to be a lot of papers I threw in the boxes before I took off), there are two things that stand out: The giant TV I finally bought because I was so damn bored my freshman year without one, and a Los Angeles Galaxy mesh jersey I bought during Major League Soccer’s inaugural year.  I was so enamored with the restart of top-flight soccer in this country, and felt so excited to have a “hometown” team to root for, that I spent money a college student didn’t have to buy it.  And I wore it when Galaxy games were on, though I made sure I wore a shirt underneath it, otherwise everybody in the dorm would be able to see my nipples through the jersey.  I was plenty naïve socially then.

In case you don’t follow MLS, the league has followed in the footsteps of every other league in the world when it comes to their kits.  The Galaxy logo (since redone from their original logo, which looked like a hurricane, quite frankly) is shunted to the heart of the jersey, replaced by a huge sign for Herbalife, a nutrition and lifestyle company whose products I think we sold in the family store.

I understood that it’s convention for soccer sides to sport jerseys with the main companies’ names in front.  Still, it is the ultimate in crass sports whoring, a sign that the most important thing in supporting a team wasn’t the name, but the business giving them the most money.  And even though the Galaxy is still my team, I can’t get over the fact that I’m really cheering on the L.A. Herbalife.

That was one difference I didn’t mind having with the rest of the sports world.  Our football, baseball, hockey and basketball teams remained company-free.  Except with the understandable exception of the maker of the clothing – the Nike swoosh is so ubiquitous it’s faded into the background – it was the city and the nickname in front, the name and the number in back.  That’s the American Way.

And now National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern believes that way has reached a dead end.  On Friday he gave the final go-ahead to allow NBA jerseys to sport corporate logos on the uniforms, starting with the 2013-4 season.  Stern has thus ushered in the second wave of Europeanization into his sport, the first being flopping.

I miss the Metrodome.  For one, I miss the sterile setting – you wouldn’t be able to enjoy a baseball game under the clear blue sky, but it would always be 72 degrees.  I would actually go to a game and see our woeful Twins this summer if not for the fact that it’s felt like 95 since late June.

But just as importantly, the Metrodome is the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, named after the Vice-President under LBJ and the greatest political statesman the state has ever known.  Gone are the days where our important civic edifices were named after great contributors to the community, or at the very least were memorials for the area’s veterans of war, our true heroes.  Now we have Target Field, a beautiful ballpark that once would have been built by the city and state, for the city and state, and where financial contributions by private corporate titans would have been seen as crass, if not unimaginable.  At least the company spackling its name on the park is based in the same city.

Not so for ARCO Arena, considered the first time a sports stadium gave naming rights to a corporation.  The Sacramento Kings were stolen away from Kansas City and Omaha in 1985.  The Sacramento Sports Arena was completed just in time to accommodate the Kings, and the so-called “Madhouse on Market Street” later quickly changed its name to that of the Atlantic Richfield Company (now a subsidiary of British Petroleum), which sponsored the building’s creation.  ARCO finally let its naming rights deal lapse in 2011, and the Kings now play in the beautifully-titled Power Balance Pavilion, named after a company that makes … wristbands.  Not that a new naming rights deal is helping anyway; the Kings and the city failed to reach agreement on a new arena, and it looks more and more likely that the franchise that was born the Rochester Royals will dust off their bags and move to their fifth different city.

Naming rights for buildings began in earnest in the nineties, right as the building boom started.  With the supposed need for bigger and glitzier places, the price for erecting these buildings shot up, too.  That’s when people decided to think outside the box to find new revenue streams.  And that’s when they went, “To hell with veterans of wars – the real heroes are the ones trying to draw walks and kick field goals from 50 yards!  Let’s sell the name of the stadium to a company, and we can use that money to buy the stud free agent we need to win … or pocket the money, whichever of the two.”

And now, of the 122 franchises in the Big Four Sports, only 28 of them play in a building that is not named after a corporation.  I know what you’re thinking – 28?  That much?  And it’s starting to creep into new stadia and arenas for college football and basketball too, i.e. the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium.

Naming rights is something I hopefully will never get used to.  I detest that whenever a sports anchor announces the site of a game that evening, the sponsor of that place goes “cha-ching!” as if telling the news is less important than getting another impression in a television market.  And we all go along with it because we want to see LeBron James drive to the hoop, or Christian Ponder take a sack, and they won’t do that if they – and their owners – don’t get money.  So we, the sports fans, shrug our shoulders and try to say we’re going to O.co Coliseum (the name the Oakland Raiders give the stadium fellow tenants the Athletics call Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum; O.co is the actual marketing name of Overstock.com, whatever the eff that means) with a straight face, sort of like lobsters tolerating a slight increase of the warmth of the water and thus deciding to stay in the pot.

And so you could then say that putting corporate names on jerseys is turning the dial up to high.  How did corporate names on jerseys start?  Scott Allen, writing for Mental Floss magazine, detailed the history of on-team sponsorship in NASCAR, which started when Richard Petty painted the logo of oil company STP (and, after an all-night bargaining session, repainted half of his car in orange, STP’s color, to go along with the blue that was a tradition started by Richard’s father, racing legend Lee Petty) on his No. 43 in 1972.  But according to Allen, it looks like the first instance of advertising corporations on your sleeve (and elsewhere) started with soccer, and for once this was an “innovation” that America did not start, thank God.

The first club team ever to use corporate sponsorship probably was Uruguay’s Peñarol, in the fifties.  After some other clubs in some other countries tried it, the trend died down.  But whoring for business bucks became a mainstay in 1973, when Bundesliga side Eintracht Braunschweig entered into a five-year deal to replace their traditional crest with the logo of their top sponsor: Jägermeister.  The German football association forbade it, so the players decided to get around the ban by making the liqueur company’s deer-and-cross logo the official logo of the squad.  After the ’73 season, the German football association allowed jersey sponsorship, and Pandora’s Box was open for good.

Soccer in America followed the corporate puppetry pioneered overseas in 2006, when Herbalife competitor XanGo paid enough dough to MLS club Real Salt Lake and energy drink Red Bull paid so much dough that they bought the whole franchise in New York so the MetroStars became the New York Red Bulls.  (At least it’s an awesome name.)  Now, of the 19 franchises in MLS, only Colorado, Kansas City and San Jose are free of this shameful branding.  Meanwhile, supporters of teams playing against Philadelphia can rightfully call them the Bimbos because that’s what the front of their jerseys say.  (Bimbo is the largest bakery company in the country and owns the Sara Lee and Entenmann’s brands.  They’re a Mexican conglomerate, so it’s actually pronounced “beem-bo” … blah-blah-blah, whatever.)

Golf players, tennis players and horse jockeys sport company names all over their clothes, and Boost Mobile this year became an official sponsor of all the WNBA franchises that couldn’t find companies to stick their names on their unis on their own.  But of the Big Four, precisely zero teams of the 122 allow company ads on their jerseys.  That will change after this upcoming NBA season.  The logo is going to be 2”-x-2” and attached to the uniform’s shoulder – you know, kind of like a girl’s tattoo.

Revenue estimates, according to NBA deputy commish Adam Silver, start at $100 million.  But you know this is just sponsorship creep.  Getting more money makes people greedy for even more money, and pretty soon you’ll get another logo on the other shoulder, and then it’ll appear on the shorts (maybe even on the booty, so you can read a player’s ass during a free throw!), and then the whole bleepin’ uniform is covered in them, like a NASCAR driver is now.  Or, they’ll go the soccer route and stretch one huge corporate logo in front.  Either way, the logo of the team, the one that really matters, will be shrunken to probably that of the same 2”-x-2” stamp that will start this whole mess in a year.

Zach Lowe of The Point Forward blog on SI.com has no problems with it: “No moral objections here.  This is a business.  Jerseys aren’t sacred.”  That’s crap.  Meanwhile, Paul Lukas of ESPN’s Uni Watch blog (and the only full-time uniform reporter in sports … damn, how good of a job is that?) excoriated the idea back in April, and with advertising’s passage in the NBA last week, thus laments the impending soiling of such pristine fabric.  Lukas is right.

Goddammit, is there nothing sacred anymore?  There will come a day where every single inch on earth and every single second in our slide down this line of Time is monetized for some corporation’s financial gain.  And the NBA’s decision means that day is coming a lot sooner than we think.  Everywhere we turn we will see and hear a company logo, a chance for that business to go, “Hey!  We paid money to get in front of your face, so buy something from us!”

You know what pisses me off about this the most?  This is a sign that, to the teams and the corporations, we fans are merely seen as walking billboards.  Starting in 2013, every time I go to a Timberwolves game I’m going to see rubes sporting this cute ad from – oh, I don’t know, Hormel.

Kids too, and exploiting kids is even worse.  They’re going to grow up in a world where being an unwitting shill for companies they’ll never work for and may never even know what they make or do is considered OK.  Doesn’t matter if these companies are financial institutions that helped bring the world economy to the brink of collapse several years ago (Citi, Bank of America), or airlines that nickel-and-dime us with billions in obnoxious ancillary fees (American, United), or energy providers who have been accused of scarring our environment and putting peoples’ health at risk (EnergySolutions, Chesapeake Energy).  These corporations are preying on the fact that if they get their logos in front of people when they’re young, they will think that they’re OK because they are on the same side as their favorite player – that, or at the very least they’ll just think such advertising is the way the world works.  Either way, those businesses believe the sponsorship fees they pay now is an investment in misguided brand loyalty that will pay dividends in the future.  And fans will be indifferent to our inexorable, zombie-like march towards corporate plutocracy.

Phil Hecken, writer for Uni Watch (a website Mr. Lukas spun off after landing in ESPN.com after going from The Village Voice to Slate), has a few ideas to try and stop this: e-mailing Mr. Silver at asilver@nba.com (by this pattern David Stern is at dstern@nba.com – guess you could try it) and tweeting #NoUniAds night and day.  But the cynic in me says that it’s no use.  If NBA owners and players can split an annual nine-figure bounty from corporate patches on shoulders, they won’t care where this advertising slippery slope takes them, and us.  A fan being able to cheer on the only thing that truly matters, the city and the name, without a stupid company trying to get in the way just so it could make some money is already considered a quaint notion by those who only want to see a player dunk, score a goal, and win.

Now I really need that Galaxy jersey – not to wear, but to cry into.  Damn. …

Posted by WilliamSou at 1:48 AM

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