This past week an issue arose in Australian cricket that is one worth watching as the American professional sports landscape, and its fans become more comfortable and engaged with the issue of uniform commercial branding…namely, putting sponsors on jerseys.
The talk for the last several years is that the U.S. professional sports will join MLS, the WNBA and most of the rest of the world with a measured and very lucrative campaign at some point in the next few years. The NHL, the NBA and the NFL now allow a patch on practice uniforms with little push-back, and MLS’ sponsor program has proved that there is acceptance from a fan base in the States. More importantly, the global push of soccer brands to market in the States has not been met with any resistance, and you would be hard pressed to walk through any park in a major market and not see a Chelsea or Manchester United or Real Madrid or FC Barcelona or AS Roma kit on a young person, all adorned with the key sponsor at the time of purchase. Sponsors have also been well accepted in NASCAR, and in some controlled levels in golf and tennis for years, so the progression is continuing.
However as sport become more global, and lucrative areas like spirits and gambling become more acceptable as brand partners, there is a bit of a cautionary tale to consider. Fawad Ahmed, one of two Australian Muslims to play on the ”VB Tour of England”… a man who fled Pakistan in 2009, sought asylum in Australia in 2010 and gained citizenship in July…was granted dispensation from wearing an alcohol brand on his uniform because of his religious beliefs. It is an isolated but not singular case, as Papiss Cisse, a Muslim, recently refused on religious grounds to wear his Newcastle team shirt featuring a sponsor, whose business is to offer short-term loans and South African cricketer Hashim Amla, also a Muslim, was exempted from wearing a beer brand logo on his shirt.
The issue of objections to brands on religious or even social reasons could become messy in the States and is something that will have to be taken in account as the jersey sponsor comes to reality. Several WNBA teams have casinos for example…could a player object who is against gambling? What if a devout Mormon objects to wearing Coca-Cola or Pepsi, some prime national jersey sponsors, because his religion forbids the use of caffeine? Could a player who has had a drinking problem in the past turn his back on Budweiser? Would it come down to dollars and how would the brand that is spending millions for a large scale opportunity react? There were no provisions in cricketers’ contracts for objections to sponsors’ logos, and the club and the federation made the decision to allow the no logo shirt as a one-off without penalty and they consulted with the sponsor. Would every brand be as understanding? While most would not want a public fight with a high level athlete over an issue of faith, it is something that will need to be addressed.
In women’s tennis, the large scale patch program has been fraught with problems for years. Players who have a Nike or adidas deal have been grandfathered into not wearing patches of sponsors and have done other programs to support the Tour’s marketing efforts, like community or digital programs. However there really haven’t been many objections on religious or social grounds, because most Tour sponsors have been in areas like technology, not gambling or beer or spirits. The difference between team and individual sports is that the decisions on brand support are left to the player much more than the league or the circuit. For example, Rafael Nadal wears a gambling-sponsored patch even in markets where online gambling is not yet legal. The patch fits the requirements of the ATP, so it is allowed for him. Should that deal be set with the ATP or the PGA or the WTA as a whole, it could be very lucrative but would probably be met with a great deal of push-back by players who object to gambling or don’t want to be associated with online gambling commercially. The individual has much more say than if he or she was part of a team sport.
Like gambling and spirits, and even other aggressive platforms like e-cigarettes and condoms, leagues and teams will have large scale financial decisions to make on what is acceptable and what is not, and as sport becomes more global, a wide range of factors like religious and social beliefs may have to be factored in more and more. The cricket case is an interesting one, and one that bears considerable thought as discretionary dollars become more competitive and the sport world becomes more as one.
Certainly a case to follow.