The overarching lesson of the 2011 NBA Lockout was that money talks. While “system issues” were important to both sides, the overwhelming sticking point was the drastic cut in revenue share that the league owners demanded of the players union. Grey-haired billionaires were fighting over piles of cash with their young, millionaire employees. When the two sides fight tooth and nail for every dollar in the pot, it’s natural for both to seek ways together to expand the pot. An idea floated by Bill Simmons months ago that is now picking up steam is corporate sponsorship of jerseys. Back in April, Amos Barshad of Simmons’ Grantland site advocated for jersey sponsorship:
Some of you may cry foul over a perceived loss of purity, of tradition. And I say, yes! Let the league move boldly into its destiny! But it’s not just a matter of inevitability; it’s a matter of the greater good. Sponsored jerseys mean more money for the league. Sponsored jerseys mean hip new clothing options for fashion-forward teenagers. Sponsored jerseys mean more free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee for longtime Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte. Win. Win. Win.
Barshad’s investigation showed possible revenues of between $400,000 (coincidentally, the Wolves were used as an example of the low end) and $30,000,000 (Manchester United’s sponsorship fee) per year.
But in this weekend’s New York Times, Viv Bernstein looked at a fascinating potential byproduct of overt sponsorship: Sponsor Control. Bernstein makes a comparison to NASCAR, and writes:
In Nascar, sponsor leverage includes playing a role in what driver is hired to wear that company logo — and marketability is in some cases more important than success on the track. But it is hard for some to imagine that level of sway in a team sport.
“That would sure create a battle between coaches, general managers and team owners and fans if they thought the team was not fielding the most competitive franchise possible but the most profitable one from a sponsor standpoint,” said David Carter, the director of the sports business institute at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business. “I think that would be a horrendous public-relations nightmare.”
It is standard procedure in Nascar, where sponsors’ input has increased as the cost of the sport has gone up. Kyle Petty, the broadcaster, former driver and son of the seven-time champion Richard Petty, said the trend began 10 to 15 years ago when sponsorships started rising from $1 million to $2 million a year up to $15 million to $20 million today. Companies pay that money to race teams, which use it to build the cars and pay drivers.
“When the money got so big, then the sponsors began to have a stronger role,” Petty said. “If my livelihood is coming from sponsorship, then that’s who I have to protect, and my allegiance is to that sponsor.”
Driver behavior is subject to sponsor approval. Tony Stewart was once fined $50,000 by the Home Depot for a physical confrontation with a photographer after a race in 2002. M.&.M.’s, a sponsor for Kyle Busch, pulled its logo from his No. 18 Toyota after an on-track incident last season, and Busch feared he would be fired by Joe Gibbs Racing.
“You have to represent your sponsors in a certain way,” the driver Jeff Burton said. “You’re held to a higher standard because you represent a corporation, their employees, their customers and their products. And if you don’t want to be held to that standard, then don’t do this, cause it’s just part of the game. And I think it’ll be a cultural shift for a basketball player to have to answer to someone other than the commissioner and the owner.”
Spokesmen for the N.B.A. and the players union declined to comment on what effect corporate sponsors might have on their sport if logos are put on jerseys.
Bernstein points out the obvious difference between NASCAR drivers and NBA players: Unions. No matter how incompetent Billy Hunter or other union leadership may seem at times, they won’t trade away their freedoms (to the extent David Stern allows any, as things stand) for only a modest financial gain. But what if the gains aren’t modest? What if sponsorship takes off and it really does turn into a NASCAR situation? Would it mean marketable has-beens like Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury (and Gilbert Arenas and Tracy McGrady) would still be donning NBA unis instead of Chinese ones? What about player conduct, on court or off? Would a DeMarcus Cousins tantrum have implications beyond a benching from Keith Smart?
Interesting to think about.