By Alex Altman
If there’s an official rock-bottom in professional sports, the Philadelphia 76ers reached it last spring. Fresh off a season in which they finished 10-72, the worst mark in the NBA, the moribund franchise took to Twitter with news that some fans found even more disturbing than its record.
Beginning in the 2017-18 season, the 76ers reported, its jerseys will bear the logo of ticket company StubHub. In doing so, it will become the first team in the history of the four major U.S. sports leagues (NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL) to advertise on an official uniform.
“We are about being first, being different, being innovative and getting to market at quickly as we can,” 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil told ESPN’s Darren Rovell. “We’re thrilled that the NBA has decided to be an innovator among the major sports leagues in this country, we’re happy that we will be the beneficiaries, and we know that being first here will drive value for our partner.”
NBA teams will keep half the money generated from jersey ads, according to ESPN. For the 76ers, that amounts to $15 million over three years. The other half of the money will be split with the players and contribute to a rising salary cap, which will give franchises more payroll flexibility to sign better players. Quite the return for a 2.5-inch-by-2.5 inch jersey patch.
Jersey ads are good for business, which is good for the NBA.
So why such an uproar?
Simply put, fans hate this idea. In a recent poll, 66 percent of respondents indicated that jersey ads bother them. The results of a 2012 poll were even more one-sided, with 84 percent of respondents expressing opposition.
After the 76ers’ announcement, outraged fans coalesced on Twitter to unleash their furor. Some attacked the NBA for its greed, some lamented the looming threat of their team’s jerseys becoming tainted, and others vowed to boycott sponsored merchandise altogether. The hashtag #NoUniformAds became a trending topic.
Although the torrent of negative fan energy is unsettling, it would be silly for NBA teams — not to mention other leagues like the NFL, which for now is apparently content sitting back and watching the 76ers experiment unfold — to think for a second that jersey ads would actually depress fandom.
Other professional sports leagues, both domestic and abroad, have proven that even the most garish advertisements do not deflate fan interest. In the English Premier League, sponsors like Chevrolet get prominence over their own club names. In North America’s biggest media market, Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls are doing just fine. And good lord, have you ever seen a NASCAR race?
The sobering reality for fans is that jersey ads are not going away. In fact, they’re only going to become more prominent. The guaranteed millions that teams can earn by pimping out real estate on their jerseys is simply too enticing to pass up. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that.
From hikes in ticket prices to the use of public coffers to fund new stadiums, sports fans have plenty of reasons to be up in arms. But this is not one of them. In fact, in a world where owners will unremorsefully charge $4 for a water bottle on a 100 degree day, aren’t jersey ads a lesser of two evils?
Fans will still complain because that’s what fans do. They will moan on social media and commiserate over a beer at the neighborhood sports bar. And then the game will start and they will find something else to gripe about.
For 76ers fans, it won’t take long.