An ad promoting a trip to Glacier National Park

Little League jerseys are often splotched with the name of the local company who paid for the uniforms: Sparky’s Garage, Dalton’s Plumbing, Billy Bob’s Bar-B-Q. To this point, however, big league jerseys have avoided big league sponsorships.

That may be about to change.

The recent Major League Baseball season opener for the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays took place in Japan, where Ricoh—an office equipment company—sponsored the series. The sponsorship, to the tune of $10 million, gave Ricoh the right to put the company name on the teams’ batting helmets, as well as a 3-inch square patch on all jerseys.

Ricoh, announcing the sponsorship back in January, described its ambitions thusly:

“Ricoh sees the MLB Opening Series as exhibitions of top class baseball in line with its own No.1 ambitions and wants customers to enjoy the world’s No.1 MLB play,” according to a press release. “All these factors persuaded Ricoh to become a title sponsor.”

What happened in Japan, however, has folks talking about baseball’s bright line for advertising.

According to an AdAge.com article, Tim Brosnan, baseball’s executive vice president for business, said: “Are there any definitive plans to put logos on uniforms? No. I don’t see that happening. But on the other side of the coin, never say never.”

Brosnan also said, according to a New York Post story, that professional baseball really is a hold-out in terms of using apparel as an advertising (and revenue) stream. He pointed to NASCAR drivers’ uniforms and cyclists’ jerseys as examples of advertising on apparel.

Currently, only the apparel maker’s logo appears on professional baseball jerseys. But some folks in the business of baseball are already counting dollar signs.

A MLB marketing executive, who asked that AdAge.com not identify him, said corporate sponsorship on league jerseys could generate at least $500 million each season.

“Look,” the executive said, “if the NFL can get $60 million a year from Coors and $48 million [a year] from Gatorade for just 16 games a season, imagine what baseball—which is far more static when it comes to television—could get for 162 games a year from a major sponsor?”

This isn’t the first time baseball has confronted this issue. At the beginning of the 1999 season, the league considered sewing 1 ½-inch square patches of corporate sponsors on jerseys.

Commercial Alert, a non-profit organization founded by Ralph Nader and Gary Ruskin and dedicated to limited commercialism, sent a letter to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig at that time. The letter gave two main reasons to avoid corporate sponsorship: the dignity of the game and the potential for bad partnerships.

Nader and Ruskin elaborated on the latter: “Large corporate advertisers are usually involved in substantial public controversy—for example, Monsanto, Shell, General Motors, Nike, and Microsoft. Do you want the penumbra of these controversies to spill over onto your players and teams?”

And that was before the recent rash of corporate scandals and problems, some of which actually did affect naming rights of stadiums and parks.

“This is not something that is likely to go away soon,” said a Chicago Sun-Times story about the advertising-in-baseball issue. “Recently, we noted the musings of a major-league owner about individual sponsorship deals to help pay the high salaries of star players. Consider the possibilities: The Bud Lite Cubs starring Sammy Sosa, brought to you by Ford.”

Jokes aside, the potential for conflict of interest looms large, as AdAge.com noted.

“Individual teams would not be able to strike their own agreements with marketers, meaning any deal would come at the league level and every team would wear a logo from the same marketer,” the article said. “But if that deal was with, say, PepsiCo, then teams that have pouring rights and advertising deals with Coca-Cola Co. would scream conflict.”

“Furthermore,” it continued, “leagues would run the risk of alienating other corporate sponsors if it had the logo of a single marketer on team uniforms.”

After the Ricoh sponsorship in Japan, Commercial Alert jumped on baseball’s case again, going after the “ad creep” in America’s pastime.

Ruskin, executive director of the organization, also bemoaned the state of the game in a letter to Bud Selig: “Now fans get players who whine about multi-million dollar contracts, gazillionaire owners who extort new stadiums from taxpayers, and a steroid-fest that has cheapened hallowed records while management looks the other way.”

Ruskin hammered Selig to go on record about where the ads would stop.

“You are not just the manager of a business,” the letter concluded. “You are the trustee of a legacy. Do you really want to pass along to those who will come after us an item of tarnished and compromised commercial goods?”

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

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