If you’re a pro basketball fan, you’re going to see something next fall you haven’t seen in ages. No, not an exciting, competitive New York Knick franchise. You’re going to see advertising on NBA uniforms. A small (2.5” x 3/5”) patch on the chest of the Cleveland Cavaliers will feature the Goodyear name; the Boston Celtics will carry the logo of General Electric. If the three-year experiment is taken up by every team, it could mean as much as $100 million a year in added revenue.
While a patch on an NBA uniform may be new, it doesn’t amount to a patch on the days of the old National Basketball League, when, as The New York Times notes, teams bore the names of companies like the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets. But the decades since such team names disappeared, has apparently meant that the impending appearance of corporate logos has been met with resistance.
According to the Times, NBA fans have expressed displeasure at the idea, apparently recoiling from the specter of commercialization. But given the way sponsorship has metastasized across the sports universe, the seems like a case of straining at a gnat after having swallowed whole caravans of camels.
NBA teams play in the Quicken Loans Arena, American Airlines Arena, the Air Canada Centre, the Bankers’ Life Fieldhouse. Major league baseball is played in Minute Maid Park, Citi Field, Tropicana Field, Globe Life Park. Virtually every college bowl game comes with a sponsor’s name embedded in the title: The Fed Ex Orange Bowl, the US F & G Sugar Bowl, the Mobil Cotton Bowl. (The Rose Bowl has preserved its technical virginity by adopting a tongue-twister: “The Rose Bowl Presented by AT &T.”) And on TV, just about every moment has been segmented into discrete events on which a sponsor’s name can be slapped. (“This ‘drive of the game’ is sponsored by [fill in the name of an automobile …]”; “this ‘call to the bullpen’ is brought to you by [fill in the name of a cell phone company].”) And while players have up to now not competed with logos pasted all over their uniforms, in the manner of race car drivers, endorsements of apparel has grown into a major revenue source. ($20 million a year from Nike to Le Bron James; $30 million from Nike to Kevin Durant; God knows how much from Under Armour for Stephan Curry. In 2016, the long-retired Michael Jordan earned some $100 million from his deal).
Journalists, of course, are free from the temptation of this grubby world of commerce. As high-minded professionals, we are in the position of waving righteous fingers of alarm at the endless commercialization of our society.
Except…I find myself dealing with a different emotion: Pure, unvarnished envy. How come athletes can turn their visibility into big bucks, while the journalistic community can’t?
First of all, it’s not as if TV has a past wholly free from corporate contamination. In the first years of the medium, countless programs bore the names of sponsors: The US Steel Hour, Philco Playhouse Colgate Comedy Hour, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, the Texaco Star Theater. As for the sacrosanct temple of news, the first network newscast on NBC was the Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze. And for years, local stations featured newscasts, sponsored by Standard Oil, that had a prominent sign reading “Your ESSO Reporter” on the news desk (Esso was the predecessor to Exxon). In his memoir, former network anchor Roger Mudd recalls a successful fight to remove that sign from the desk.
But there’s a more specific argument I’m making here on behalf of my colleagues. I spent many years as a more or less daily presence on network news, at ABC, CNN and CBS. While I was hardly a household name, that visibility meant that I was often in plain view of a few million people. I had a sense of what that could mean when, just after the 1992 election, I wisecracked on air that anyone standing in front of the Clinton transition office risked “being run over by a thousand Ferragamo-wearing lobbyists.”” The next day, I received a pair of Ferragamo shoes, which I returned because a) it was a clear ethical violation and b) the shoes didn’t fit anyway.
But suppose I had put a Macbook air between me and the camera; what might that exposure have been worth to Apple? What if I’d knocked back a Snapple Peach Ice Tea in between analyzing a debate or primary; wouldn’t that have had value? As for today’s more visible personalities, a readable logo on Jake Tapper’s suit coat or Rachel Maddow’s blouse or Lesley Stahl’s dress should be worth somewhere close to six figures from grateful designers or retailers.. Their bosses might welcome such a policy since it would enable them to brag to shareholders about bottom-line cost-cutting, which would protect those huge bonuses they get. And the talent could reap the benefits of exposure. (Yes, there are some pesky conflict of interest standards to deal with, but all the networks need to do is to declare that “we’re just following the standards of the White House. Anybody got a problem with that?”
Of course, there’s another issue given my current life: Could this work for us journos who now practice our craft in print, or on the web? Let me ponder this with research, thanks to my new favorite search engine…