The NBA’s Plan to Turn LeBron and Co. into Human Billboards

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Joe Robbins / Getty Images

You literally can’t turn your head at a sporting event without being bombarded by advertising. Every arena is named after a corporation, every corner of a stadium is sponsored, every break in the action is brought to you by a pill that will keep you erect for hours despite your team’s place in the standings. But then there are the jerseys: those proud, crisp uniforms that seem to be the last bastion of empty space in an otherwise cluttered sports landscape, and the white whale of popular brands. In America, we’ve always been told that you “play for the name on the front of the jersey,” but the NBA is hoping that name will soon be McDonald’s.

Starting with the 2017 All-Star game, the League will allow advertising on a relatively small 2.5-inch square patch that will take up residence high on the left shoulder, a spot normally reserved for the Association’s logo (Jerry West’s famous silhouette will be moved to the back, and we’ll let you write your own obvious analogy here). The patch comes as part of the massive new TV deal with ESPN and TNT, which will collectively pay $2.7 billion per year (up from $900 million) to broadcast games through 2023. They plan to offset that inflated price with a percentage of the revenue from team’s selling uniform ad space.

But this was a dam ready to break. NASCAR and the Premiere League have proven that a small patch is likely just a first step to bigger ads across the chest (already adopted in the WNBA) and teams that no longer represent the city they play for, but instead the brand that bid the highest for use of human billboards: the United Airways Bulls vs. the Kotex Lakers.

“I couldn’t have made that game-winning three without the delicious power of Pepsi.”

International soccer gave up the same fight years ago, but at least their fans reap some rewards from the deal: Company logos are a small price to pay for non-stop 45-minute halves and games that last, at max, two hours. Advertisers are allowing you to watch that sport uninterrupted by beer commercials. In comparison, NBA fans get roughly half the actual amount of action (48 minutes for now and likely creeping down) in an inflated three-hour package, thanks in part to 6 timeouts per team, mandated TV stoppages every four minutes of playing time, and extended breaks at the quarters and half, all of which let the NBA, ESPN, and TNT profit while you’re waiting for someone to put the ball in play.

We spent the summer congratulating new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for his strict and quick punishment of Donald Sterling’s racial outburst, which when compared with Roger Goodell’s recent response to Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson’s domestic abuse cases made Silver seem a conquering hero. We assumed he’d continue changing the league for the better, but now he has plunged his shovel into the last few acres of sacred ground left in American sport, and the likes of Goodell, Jerry Jones, Gary Bettman, and the Steinbrenners are standing in line right behind him, cheering him on as they wait their turn.

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