US leagues eye MLS jersey sponsorships

MLS' experiment in jersey sponsorships could factor into other sports' decisions to pursue similar efforts

MLS' experiment in jersey sponsorships could factor into other sports' decisions to pursue similar efforts

When Major League Soccer (MLS) starts its 12th season next month, it will be one step closer to resembling the international soccer leagues it has tried to emulate by using the front of players' jerseys as billboards for sponsors.

MLS will join NASCAR as the only other major sport in the US to give sponsors such prominent ad placement on team jerseys. In the past, the league has only allowed national sponsors to have logos on the lower back of team jerseys.

While NASCAR has had pervasive sponsorship "ingrained in our DNA" since the early days, notes Andrew Giangola, NASCAR's director of business communications, MLS' new approach might serve as an experiment to see what the future holds for the intersection of sponsorship and other American sports.

The idea of having logos on player jerseys has been discussed and kicked around by other leagues, including Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and even horse racing.

But the other American sports that have flirted with more prominent sponsorships have not fared well.

When Spider-Man 2 came out in 2004, MLB was set to decorate the tops of bases with webs on the movie's opening weekend, but fan backlash made it change its mind.

And the thought of letting jockeys sully their silks with corporate logos during the running of the Kentucky Derby a few years back also drew the ire of fans, and so the idea was subsequently squashed.

Giangola says because MLS is still a young league, it shouldn't have any problems, but older, more established leagues might run into resistance.

"The difficulty for other sports is that it's sort of a bolt-on now," Giangola says. "You're bringing it in when it's not a natural part of the sport. Think of the Yankees pinstripes and then a logo on those pinstripes, and there's a bit of a clash. Maybe MLS can have an easier time of it because the brand is evolving."

MLS most likely won't have to deal with that type of outrage from its fans. In fact, because of the history overseas between sponsors and teams, it may actually give MLS more street cred in the eyes of its fans.

"This is industry standard in the soccer business," says Doug Quinn, president of Soccer United Marketing, MLS' business and promotions arm. He says the US "is the only market in the world where sports marketing doesn't include jersey sponsorship."

As of now, the Real Salt Lake club and Utah-based supplement juice company XanGo have signed the only sponsorship deal. A source close to the situation, who expects that four or five more deals may be finalized by the start of the season, says, "Each of the deals will average over $1 million a year. These deals are going to be considerably bigger than the majority of deals those smaller teams in the English Premier League [have]."

A Wall Street Journal article in September reported that the Los Angeles Galaxy club was in discussions for a "multimillion dollar" deal.

"They're going to be very strategic with this, and look for the right brands and partners, and balance those investments with what makes sense overall," says Derek Aframe, VP at Octagon, a sports and entertainment marketing firm.

Rick Liebling, global director of client management at Alan Taylor Communications, believes other leagues will be very interested to see what the reaction among MLS fans will be this season.

"I'm sure folks in other leagues will be watching this very closely," Liebling says. "They'll be looking to see what the consumer reaction is to this. [At] first, I think they may be a little skeptical of it. But three years from now, can I see fans protesting because there's a Microsoft logo on the front of a jersey from a team in Houston? I don't think so."

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