It's all well and good that the NBA and its owners are doing their due diligence with regard to exploring alternative revenue streams, including advertisements on jerseys. It's well within their rights to do so, and with commissioner David Stern claiming during the lockout that most teams were losing money, it's hardly surprising that they have.
But even Stern isn't convinced that putting ads on jerseys—as soccer teams and professional basketball teams at home and abroad have done for years—is necessarily a good thing for the NBA. As he told A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com in Milan, Italy:
It's something that's being discussed by the NBA Board of Governors. This is the one forum that understands that advertising on team jerseys has gone on for decades, both in football and in basketball, virtually every other sport.
As a personal matter, I am not in favor of it, but I'm not standing in the way of it. If my board wants to do it, we'll do it.
Of all the leagues in the world, the NBA is the only one that has its own logo on it. No information of the manufacturer and no sponsor, and that is something that I have worked hard to preserve for many decades. But I understand that the team may have to come to consider it. So we're going to let the Board of Governors decide what to do.
By the sound of his words, Stern seems to hint at the inevitability of it all. Sentimentality tends to be the last bastion of the status quo against the encroachment of change, and few notions are more sentimental than tradition. Stern didn't use the "T" word, but if you read between the lines of the commish's comments about the NBA's logo, you can practically hear Tevya crooning from the nearest rooftop.
In reality, the argument over sewing a sponsored two-by-two-inch patch onto the shoulder of a player's jersey (and all the authentic replicas of that player's jersey) has little to do with tradition, at least in the way in which Stern invokes it. A square of that size would likely be an unwatchable eyesore only to the ficklest of fans.
After all, what difference would that make when the court, the arena and every second during halftime and timeouts are already saturated with sales pitches?
In principle, though, the very notion of putting the "sanctity" of the NBA jersey up for auction to the highest bidder would be yet another affront to the fans themselves, albeit one that fits all too perfectly with the trend of trampling on sports consumers in pursuit of the nearest nickel and dime.
According to Team Marketing Report, the NBA's average ticket price crept up to $48.48 last season, an increase of 1.7 percent and the first in three years. The NBA's Fan Cost Index—by which TMR measures the average price of four tickets, two small draft beers, four small soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two programs and two adult-sized caps—checked in at $301.46.
Granted, these numbers are still more modest than those of the NFL, which were tallied at $78.38 and $443.93, and (surprisingly enough) weren't quite as troubling as the NHL's average ticket price of $57.10.
But the fact remains, the NBA's in-arena experience is not only more obnoxious than ever before, but also more expensive. Most basketball fans have been priced out of seeing the game live, even as the league's mega-millionaire and billionaire owners cry poor and blame players' salaries (rather than their own poor management) for the costs that continue to be passed onto the customers.
Now, even those who enjoy the game only from their couches are being squeezed by their favorite teams. For instance, the Lakers' new multibillion-dollar TV deal with Time Warner Cable has left most fans in Los Angeles in the dark. To recoup the cost of its investment, Time Warner is attempting to charge other carriers—DirecTV, Dish Network and Verizon, to name a few—$3.95 per customer for a channel whose content currently consists of new and recycled broadcasts of the Lakers, the Sparks of the WNBA and the Galaxy of MLS.
To put that in perspective, Comcast's affiliate in Washington, D.C. is the only regional sports network (RSN) in America that's more expensive than the price Time Warner is currently demanding.
So while TV executives and networks are busy squabbling over costs, fans who used to enjoy Lakers games on a local CBS affiliate (KCAL 9) or Fox Sports Net are left to either switch providers, find some place else to watch the games or forgo viewership entirely.
Should the owners be allowed to put ads on their teams' jerseys?
Chances are, with the outpouring of discontent from Lakers fans, all sides involved will settle at some point either right before the start of the season or shortly thereafter. And, to be sure, the existing inconvenience is one that's all too befitting of a society that takes its standard of living for granted, though that's an entirely different topic of discussion for another time.
As far as fans are concerned, though, they're being bombarded on both sides, even as their economic circumstances continue to deteriorate. They're being forced to pay for a product that, in many cases, isn't demonstrably better than that which they paid for previously. Ads on jerseys aren't an all-out assault on that product, but they do cheapen it to some extent, just as is any selling off of pieces of the NBA experience for sponsorship money.
If the owners want to skimp on the expenses they'd otherwise have to pay out to keep their teams competitive and render the game itself more nauseating to watch with ads, don't they owe it to the fans, in some moral sense, to reduce the cost of viewership?
The realistic answer: Of course not. Because—as the NBA, the NFL and the NHL have all shown in recent years, much to the chagrin of those who enjoy their respective wares—fans will keep coming back. So long as there is basketball on TV, people will watch it, even if they have to spend more or find other means to do so, and even if the games themselves are rendered unwatchable for one reason or another.
And so long as people will watch it, the NBA and its owners will continue to push the envelope in all the wrong ways. They'll ask the fans to give more for less when the fans have less to give. These mega-millionaires and billionaires—these captains of industry who, somehow, can't turn NBA franchises into profitable businesses—will keep coming back to their constituents for bigger payouts, even as the quality and value of the games themselves are careening into the abyss, because they "can't afford" to keep up with the Joneses.
Says Herb Simon, the owner of the Indiana Pacers, whose net worth Forbes estimates to be around $1.6 billion. Says Dan Gilbert, the Cleveland Cavaliers owner who whined about how unfair it was that LeBron James left him and his $1.5-billion fortune behind for Micky Arison's $4.2 billion in Miami. Says Paul Allen, the Portland Trail Blazers owner whose $13.2 billion make him the wealthiest NBA mogul this side of Mikhail Prokhorov.
Is it not bad enough that they sucked up salaries from their players during last year's lockout while depriving the fans of the game they love? Must they also wipe their noses with the jerseys that their players wear and their fans snap up from their team stores? Is it too much to ask the suits to set aside their greed for but a moment to at least recognize the existence (and sentience) of their most loyal customers?
Luckily for fans, the seemingly inevitable march toward soccer-style jersey ads isn't going as swiftly as expected. Deputy commissioner Adam Silver said this past July that he expected teams to start stitching ads onto jerseys as soon as this fall.
Well, the leaves are turning and NBA players aren't yet wearing as much flair as Brian. That's not to say that they won't be eventually.
But, for now—and it pains me to say this—fans might just have to trust in David Stern to protect what matters most.
Shoulder straps The integrity of the sport they love to watch.