[Editor’s Note: Before we proceed with today’s entry, I’m happy to announce that the winner of the Distant Replays $250 raffle is Robert DeCorte. Thanks to all who entered.
Now then: Today’s post is the latest contribution from Uni Watch intern Vince Grzegorek, who’s giving some well-deserved space to that really popular sport that I never write about. — PL]
I know you’re excited about soccer in 2007, especially with that Beckham guy heading to the Los Angeles Galaxy. So for all of the people (the five or six of you) who may take a first look at the MLS this season, and for some of the more casual futbol fans, I thought this was a good time to put on some shin guards and take a look at soccer uniforms, which don’t always get their fair shake here at Uni Watch. But there’s plenty to discuss, because there’s another foreign export besides Beckham heading for American soccer: uniform advertising.
Although jersey ad patches have crept into a few low-level sports (arena football, lacrosse, minor league hockey), major-level team uniforms in America have remained largely ad-free. That’s not the case in the rest of the world. Jersey advertising and sponsorship have been a part of soccer uniforms in Europe, Asia, and South America for some time, and jersey advertising also appears in NFL Europe and European hockey. But soccer is where jersey advertisements are most widely known.
The trend began across the pond in the late 1970s, when UK teams thought they could raise some extra revenue by selling jersey sponsorships. Liverpool was the first team to officially sign a deal, wearing Hitachi on their jerseys during the 1979 season. (Hibernian had worn uniforms featuring Bukta [a uni manufacturer] in 1977, but that situation falls into a slightly different category, since the company already had a relationship with the team, and Bukta didn’t pay the club to feature the logo.) Seems simple enough, but there were logistical hurdles. Until 1983, television broadcasts had a strict ban on filming games featuring logo-emblazoned uniforms, so for four years teams wearing sponsor logos were forced to use different uniforms for televised matches. Even as the rules relaxed and teams took advantage of the more receptive atmosphere, broadcasters initially refused to embrace the advertising revolution, mandating that sponsor logos worn during taped games could only be half the size of the versions worn during non-broadcast matches.
Nowadays, jersey sponsorship has evolved into a
gigantic humongous gigundous business. Manchester United signed a deal last year with AIG that will net them a cool $106 million over four years, and Chelsea is proudly wearing Samsung across their chests for $18.7 million a year. While European clubs usually have only one sponsor logo on their jerseys (see additional examples here, here, here, here, and here), Mexican and South American teams generally go the more garish (and lucrative) route and pile on sponsors on top of sponsors.
And then there’s Barcelona, which has always refused to wear a sponsor logo — until this season, when Barca took a jersey sponsor for the first time in its 107 year-old history. The difference? The sponsor is UNICEF, and Barcelona is PAYING the charity almost $2 million dollars a year for the privilege of wearing the logo.
What does that all mean for the MLS? Well, upon its creation the MLS inked deals with sponsors and allowed their logos to be displayed on the backs of the jerseys and on shorts (for example, Budweiser, Sierra Mist, Honda, and RadioShack), while the jersey fronts remained free ad-free, and divided the proceeds amongst the clubs. Last year, however, the MLS changed its rules to allow the individual clubs to sell the space on the front of their uniforms (although Commissioner Don Garber took some of the fun out by not allowing ads for hard liquor, tobacco, or gambling).
Real Salt Lake was the first team to take advantage of the opportunity, signing a deal that will display the XanGo brand name on their uniforms. (Technically, Red Bull owns the New York team, so having their logo on the uniforms doesn’t count as a sponsorship deal.) Word is already out that the New England Revolution will take a sponsor this season too. And Chivas, owned by Mexican billionaire Jorge Vergara, will likely wear the Bimbo name, just like Chivas Guadalajara, a Vergara-owned team in Mexico. (Just to be clear, Bimbo is a company that makes bread, although I would vote for sponsorship from this Bimbo, this Bimbo, this Bimbo, or this Bimbo as well.) Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Galaxy will presumably be able to strike a mega-bucks deal, thanks to Beckham’s arrival.
So what of it? Does the MLS jersey sponsorship mean the Pandora’s Box of professional sports advertising in the US has been opened? Does anyone really care, since we’re just talking about the MLS here?
Personally, I’m conflicted. I think MLS teams that take on jersey sponsors may actually look more professional, because I associate top-level soccer with leagues in Europe or Mexico or wherever, and that’s the way it’s done. On the other hand, this isn’t something I’m fully prepared to accept. I realize the MLS doesn’t have the attendance, fans, or revenue that the NBA does, for example, and I know these teams could really use the extra cash, especially when competing for the attention span of a country that doesn’t really care about soccer, but I firmly believe that uniforms do in fact represent something meaningful, and that not everything should be for sale.
What do you think? How do you feel about the new changes for the MLS? How would you feel about a similar situation occurring in baseball, basketball, football, or hockey? Is it inevitable? Is there a way it can be done tastefully?
E-mail your comments to Uniwatchintern at gmail dot com, and I’ll print a sampling of responses in a future entry.
Tangential Bonus Material: Can’t get enough soccer uni info? Here are some additional resources:
• Two great sites detailing the history of European and International soccer kits (including this controversial design worn by Arsenal from 1991-1993, affectionately nicknamed the “bruised banana”) can be found here and here.
• MLS kits from the league’s inception until last year can be found here. New uniform designs will be used this year, which will be another change in addition to the jersey sponsorship. (Asked about wearing the old-style Galaxy uniforms with yellow and green, David Beckham gave this response.)
• Here is an amazing site that details some of the more interesting uses of cool fonts and numbers on soccer uniforms, including my favorite, which was used by Sevilla in the 2006 UEFA Cup Final (they used italics!). The site also shows how you can fashion a remarkably accurate version of the block-numbering used by the 2006 Dutch team using Dutch toilet paper. With the exception of the last item, the site’s attention to detail, accuracy, and history are definitely worthy of Uni Watch.
• Remember seeing this picture of David Beckham throughout the news after the official announcement that he was coming to play for the Galaxy? Notice the mixture of upper and lower case letters? Me too. Personally, I think it looks pretty slick. The font is called Peignot. Anyone know any other cases of teams using upper- and lowercase letters on jersey nameplates?
• Councilmen in New Castle County, Delaware are sending soccer balls to Iraq to try and bring the Iraqi people and American troops together with sport. Good idea in theory, but who really thought this ball design was a good idea?
• Finally, since I’m from Cleveland, I have to give proper recognition to one of my favorite soccer teams (and logos) ever, even though it’s a long-defunct indoor team: the Cleveland Force.