On-Field Sponsorships Not The Answer For Major Sports

Four years after Major League Baseball launched an ill-conceived plan with Paramount to promote the Spiderman movie by putting the movie logo on the three bases of each major league stadium for an entire that almost gave baseball purists a coronary before it was canceled, MLB found a new, creative way to integrate a sponsor. MLB teamed with Paramount to promote the upcoming Indiana Jones movie by putting a picture of Indiana Jones on May 22nd, the movie’s premiere date, of each team’s schedule on MLB.com. The promotion works on many levels, its creative, non-intrusive, and will draw eyeballs and get attention of the target demographic, who constantly check team schedules.

However, it raises the question on where to draw the line with sponsorships in sports. MLS allows teams to sell uniform space, the NHL tested virtual ads transposed on the ice during the playoffs, baseball stadium outfield walls, yet the public outcry when baseball even considered a logo on the bases was enormous. That promotion would have created a major backlash against both the league and the product.

In the constant quest for additional revenue, leagues, teams, and networks continue to push the envelope, each league brings different parameters to the table. MLS, and all the individual sports (golf, tennis, etc.) can get away with uniform ads, however, we are far from the day when fans will accept a Visa credit card ad on an NBA jersey, NFL uniform, or baseball uniform. Its a lucrative concept – DC United recently signed Volkswagen for 5 years, $14 million so imagine what real estate on the Lakers or Celtics uniform would yield. But it invades tradition, creating the potential negative backlash I mentioned earlier.

On field advertisements are different, I think basketball courts and football fields are already littered with enough graphics – be it the league or team logo, field name, or end zone design – that an advertisement on the hash marks is not a far reach. The NBA and NFL should carefully seek sponsorship deals for various parts of the field that have excessive exposure. Football teams could seek sponsors for goal posts or the padding under the posts and the play clock, while the NBA has the shot clock, the post holding the basket up, and the scorers table. From there, sponsorships can migrate onto the playing field without too many arguments. Basketball arenas are already testing technology systems that can display ads on the background during stoppages in play. Baseball is the only field still treated as sacred to this day, though the outfield walls and foul poles are already fair game.

Before moving to the field, sports entities should maximize in-game TV sponsorships. For instance, almost every sport leaves a basic score graphic up the entire game that includes the network’s logo, occasionally expanding it to show a stat, such as a basketball team’s shooting percentage, or a batter’s career against a certain pitcher. Network’s can replace their logo with a sponsor’s logo for a temporary amount of time, allowing them to sponsor this portion of the game. Or, rather than a pop-up that shows Derek Jeter has three home runs in his last ten at-bats, flash a small ad graphic each time Jeter gets up. Sell a sponsorship for his at-bats all season. On screen exposure during the most watched points of the game is invaluable to a sponsor.

These ideas only scrape the surface of what’s possible. It goes without saying networks must diligently avoid clutter, and be careful to make the ad’s too intrusive. The key is creativity and subtlety, or again that backlash and failure risk comes into play.

Putting my digital hat on for a second, more leeway exists in new media because the viewers it caters to are of the less traditional, younger demo, and because new media itself is less traditional. Content owners can leverage that opportunity to maximize revenue. Moving beyond the normal pre-roll and overlay advertising using in online video, arguably more effective than TV advertising because its time-shift proof, the surrounding screen that houses the embedded player can be sponsored. Add a social networking component to engage viewers during the game. Fans will debate that pitching move in the eighth inning somewhere, give them the forum to do it right online with everyone else watching the game. Fantasy games, product placement within broadband only telecasts, mobile, the list is endless for new sponsorship revenue opportunities, albeit none reaching the masses as traditional television does at this point.

Before one of the major sports cannibalizes the purity of the game by invading uniform space, or plastering logos on balls, many creative ways exist to generate additional revenue that are not currently used. Each sport has a different threshold that it can push without alienating fans and challenging the establishment. Uniform advertising is accepted in soccer because fans are accustomed to seeing it in Europe. Hockey may get away with it, the major league most in need of new revenue and attention, fans tolerate change more than in other sports. Football and basketball have to avoid the uniforms, but should investigate on-field advertising, with care to avoid clutter and overwhelming fans, while baseball needs to steer clear of the field altogether, outside of virtual signage. However, baseball has the most in stadium, off field sponsorship opportunities because of the unique nature of each stadium, and interactive fan opportunities it presents. Before broaching that topic teams and networks still have creative leeway with their telecasts.

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