Starting with the 2013-2014 season, the National Basketball Association will become the first of the four major sports leagues—the others being the NFL, MLB, and the NHL—to allow corporate sponsorship on its players’ jerseys. For many fans of the NBA and sports in general, this marks a sad if not inevitable development.
Professional sports in America have reached stratospheric levels as top athletes enjoy cult-like status in society and games such as the Super Bowl have become culture-consuming events. Fans remain rabidly loyal to their home teams, even if they can no longer afford the expensive costs of attending games, let alone shelling out $12 for a beer. Major sports leagues, however, should ask themselves this question: At what point does the commercialization of sports undermine the enjoyment and allegiance fans have for their favorite teams?
Loyal fans stick with their teams through thick and thin, but when the identity of that team becomes lost in the oversaturation of corporate sponsorship, many begin to second guess whom they are actually supporting—Miami or McDonald’s? Major sports leagues will, of course, maximize profits in any way possible; it’s their prerogative to do so. But it is also up to individual fans to decide exactly how far, emotionally and financially, they’ll play along with marketing efforts that are directly competing for attention with the play on the court, the field or the ice.
For now, the NBA plans on starting small by only allowing a 2×2-inch patch on the shoulder section of the uniforms. But we can all see where this is going. Yet we can’t predict where this will end, if ever. PR experts should watch carefully where major league sports, and their respective fans, draw the line. Perhaps they should study Major League Soccer, which has erased the line completely. New York City’s MLS team isn’t just sponsored by Red Bull, but named the Red Bulls.