Sell the Uniforms Already

The more I think about it, the more I'm all for the NBA selling sponsorships of NBA uniforms.

My main thought: It's something that could bring in big dollars, while the cost -- a little visual distraction -- is minimal. This is perfect compromise for these hard times.

First, a little background. Last week I wrote a bullet about it, and got a lot of smart people thinking I had a screw loose:

The NBA has been against sponsor logos on uniforms. But I don't know why. There is paid logo placement in every single nook and cranny of NBA basketball. I know the NBA isn't against corporate sponsorship, right? (They're already getting big cash to have that adidas logo on the uniforms.) My main thought is: If having it say "Rock Financial" or something across the front of the Pistons jersey increases a regular working family's ability to afford tickets ... what are we waiting for?

The small issue, I didn't expect: TrueHoop reader Doug rightly pointed out that the adidas logo is not visible on NBA game uniforms. True enough! (But if you shop for your own NBA uniform, you'll almost certainly see it there.)

The big issue, I did expect: All kinds of economic brains assaulted my notion that new sponsor money would keep owners from charging as much as the market would bear for every seat in the building. On what grounds could I predict uniform logos would somehow make games more affordable?

In general, this argument is dead right. In the broadest strokes, any business would be smart to charge something close to what the market will bear, as opposed to what they need to charge to make money. If somebody will pay $80 for a decent seat at a Pistons game, why would the Pistons ever consider selling that seat for $40?

Extra income wouldn't change that. Surely.

That is the general outline of the market.

But there are nooks and crannies where things are different, and I'm totally convinced that the powers that be care about getting at least some regular working people into the arena, one way or another.

Exhibit A is the NBA's mandate that every team have $10 tickets to every regular season road game.

There is no exhibit B. But there are two more theories:

  • NBA profits rely in a major way on taxpayer supported stadiums. If only the 20,000 richest people in town get into games, what kind of voter support can an owner expect for your next stadium referendum? Much better, surely, to set prices in a way that encourages millions of people to see a game now and again and feel connected to the team.

  • There's an experiment going on, right now: What happens to an American professional sports league long-term when a generation of children don't go to their games? Some percentage of the NBA's most ardent fans today grew up seeing games in person back when the shorts were tighter and the tickets were cheaper. With more and more tickets priced for corporate wining and dining, and late start times, it seems to be there are not nearly as many children growing up in the habit of buying NBA tickets. In the very long term -- decades -- will those kids (who are presumably using the time growing passionate about other things) become NBA season ticket buyers? Maybe.

Somebody at the NBA did the hard work of making $10 tickets a reality. Somebody feels some urge to give up some short-term cash in favor of the long-term benefits that come with some affordable tickets. "What the market will bear" is not the only pricing force at work.

The "keep some tickets cheap" camp, however, is surely in hard times in fiscal crisis. Let's pretend I'm a team owner, and we're losing lots of money paying salaries that we agreed to back when the economy was good and we used to sell more tickets.

At some point I'm going to be in a meeting where somebody will say something like "don't forget, many people think there could be long-term problems if all the tickets are too expensive, we should cut some prices well below even what this bad market will bear."

Meanwhile, the whole organization is starved for cash.

This is kind of like being in an ambulance, with the sirens wailing, and having someone say "don't forget, the ambulance is more fuel efficient at around 35 miles an hour."

In either case, the speaker is raising a long-term concern in the face of a short-term crisis. Real though the concern may be, considering it right now is a luxury a reasonable person would not afford.

Reportedly half of the NBA's teams lost money last year. In that environment, there are real hard-and-fast limits on how much anyone can ask owners to invest in long-term goals like the economic diversification of the in-arena audience.

There's precious little anyone could do to make most owners relax about the short-term outlook for their teams. But giving them a new and meaningful revenue stream would be a powerful step in the right direction.

Uniform placement would get a sponsor into every sports section and highlight reel every day. It's a mammoth opportunity, perhaps the most valuable thing that could be sponsored in the NBA. The income to the teams would be non-trivial.

A new influx of cash may not lead to any more cheap seats. But it could not hurt, and if there is still the will around the NBA to get many different people into games, found money is probably the surely the biggest obstacle to overcome. This would give more owners more leeway to consider the concerns of the "let's figure out this long-term issue" crowd.

Or, to put it another way: The better teams are doing financially, the less they are forced to milk every dollar from every ticket. Doesn't mean they will make tickets cheaper than they have to, but they definitely won't in financial crisis.

The new income from uniform sponsorship might mean some more cheap tickets. That's reason enough to try, especially with a cost so small.

In the bigger picture, and I know not everyone agrees with me here, a logo on a uniform just isn't a big deal. Plenty of sports the world over (most notably soccer, but also everything from surfing to cycling) have proven it can work. If it can bring in real money, how can the league not consider it? If teams are really in dire straits, and the economy is going to be slow in reheating, what is so great about logo-free uniforms?

Talk about a luxury we can't afford.