The European and North American Sports Cultural Divide
By Evan Weiner
September 13, 2009
10:00 PM EDT
(Copenhagen, Denmark) -- On September 1st, the wife and I were walking down Strøget, the main shopping area in Copenhagen when she spotted a fellow in a red shirt with the letters AIG emblazoned on the front. She wondered why anyone would want to wear the insignia of a disgraced financial company that is being bailed out by America taxpayers on a shirt until she realized that the shirt was actually part of the Manchester United football kit.
In Europe, no one thinks twice about seeing a corporate logo on a sports uniform. It is part of the game unlike the practice in North America where advertising on Major League Baseball or National Football League or National Basketball Association or National Hockey League shirt is akin to drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
The European football kit is not much different than a rugby shirt. The team's major sponsor has a big logo which captures the eye while a much smaller team logo resides in the upper left hand side of the shirt. The shirt or kit manufacturer has a small logo on the upper right side of the shirt. The logo is clearly visible on TV screens, from the stands or in newspaper/magazine pictures.
That is the reason the sponsorship is so attractive.
AIG's logo has been plastered on Manchester United's shirts since 2006 as part of a four-year, $100 million (US) deal. AIG is not the only taxpayer bailout English Premier League team marketing partner. The U. K. has nationalized the Northern Rock bank. Northern Rock's logo appears on Newcastle United's shirt. Northern Rock also is a major sponsor of Newcastle's rugby team.
Financial institutes have been sports marketing partners for a long, long time and it seems that people in the United States have no problem with stadium naming rights except possibly Citibank's marketing deal with Fred Wilpon's New York Mets. In the United States, journalists and editors who should know better and avoid corporate names in articles, columns, radio updates and talk shows along with TV talking heads embrace the corporate names. The fourth estate has accepted corporate marketing partnership and so have sports fans.
Naming rights, presumably, for a stadium do not interfere with a game nor does the NBA's marketing deals with a car company to sponsor league trophies for the Most Valuable Player Award, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man Award and Most Improved Player.
The English Premier League is sponsored by Barclay's bank.
But there is a great sports cultural divide between Europe and North America. In Europe, sports teams whether it is in football, cycling, rugby or cricket have advertising on their shirts, in North America there is still a thought that advertising on baseball uniforms, football, hockey and basketball shirts is something of a violation that might even supersede the separation of church and state although it is rather unclear just what is so sacred about a jersey in those sports even though there is subtle advertising on those shirts as the companies that make the shirts have clearly visible logos on the clothing.
In North America, it is accepted practice for race drivers to have their uniforms plastered with sponsor logos and Major League Soccer follows European tradition and places advertising logos on soccer shirts.
Does a sponsor’s logo ruin a game? The answer is no.
In Europe, the inclusion of a sponsor logo is no big deal. But to some like Ralph Nader, a sponsor's logo on a sports shirt is absolutely wrong and breaks the covenant between the fans sports owners. There are others who feel the same way.
On May 4, 2004, Nader sent a letter to Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig condemning Selig and Major League Baseball owners for putting advertising logos on New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays uniforms for the opening series of the 2004 MLB season in Tokyo, Japan.
Nader didn't hide his feelings in his salvo to Selig.
"The great lengths of selfishness with which you are willing to go to desecrate baseball and alienate fans of the game should no longer surprise us. Still, your placement of advertisements on the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays uniforms for Major League Baseball's opener on March 30 in Tokyo ambushed fans across the country and left them shaking their heads at this obscene embarrassment," Nader wrote in his opening paragraph.
"We urge that you immediately put this issue to rest once and for all and eliminate any current or future possibility that Major League Baseball will accept advertisements on uniforms.
"You are suffocating Baseball's fan base. It's not enough for fans who want to enjoy a game to be forced to watch this pitch sponsored by that company or that home run sponsored by this corporation. In addition, they go to a stadium paid for by the fans and taxpayers, yet almost every available space is filled with ads and named after some multinational corporation with no ties to the community.
"Over the last several years, fans have been made to watch 'virtual advertising' infiltrate television broadcasts, and T.V. commentators using the broadcast booth to hawk cell phones during the playoffs and World Series. This over-commercialization is sapping the fun out of being a fan of Major League Baseball.
"Now, you have sunk to a greedy new low. Bending Baseball to the demands of advertisers and accepting more than $10 million (according to Advertising Age) for a corporation to plaster ads on the uniforms for the two-game series in Tokyo. It's supposedly a one-time deal, but conventional wisdom says otherwise -- that permanent advertising on uniforms isn't a question of 'if,' but 'when.'
"MLB executive vice president for business Tim Brosnan, told reporters in Japan '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.'
"'We're mindful of the fans, but I don't think [advertising on uniforms] is unreasonable,' Brosnan later told the New York Post. 'We're always looking for new ways to advance our business.'
"That must sound reassuring to fans. The public tolerates a certain amount of commercialism, but why do you insist on trying the patience of loyal baseball fans across the country? We already have NASCAR, with drivers doubling as walking commercial billboards. Is that really what you want for the national pastime?
"Commissioner Selig, no one is trying to get in the way of your ability to make money, but you need to look beyond the immediate bottom line to make Major League Baseball sustainable. As primary caretaker, this means your job is to respect cities and fans, ensure the integrity of the game, and eliminate self-interested and destructive tendencies. Advertising on uniforms runs counter to each of these critical principles.
"If you allow such an explicit interference of baseball with another greedy vehicle for corporate marketing -- using player uniforms as product placement surfaces -- apathy is not what you should expect from fans and sportswriters. There will be considerable resentment, and fans will drift away. A matter of taste can sour more quickly than you think."
Major League Baseball has not added logos to the front of team shirts yet. Nor as the NFL, NBA or the NHL. But the way North American sports is structured today, there is no reason to keep logos off of shirts except for tradition. The National Hockey League a few years back wiped off the names of the companies that supply equipment to players unless the league received a stipend from the companies. Putting a logo on a Major League Baseball, National Football League, National Hockey League, and National Basketball Association uniform would not compromise any games. Logos on shirts in Europe or Asia are commonplace. There is nothing scared about sports uniforms.