In today’s society, we’re inundated with ads no matter where we turn. One area that never fails to blast us with corporate capitalism is sports programming. From in-game promotions to arena names, NBA basketball is fueled by corporate sponsorship. These companies pay a pretty penny to get their logos in fan’s faces at every turn, and the NBA is happy to oblige.
If you have followed the NBA recently, you may have also noticed logos popping up on their jerseys. Have you ever wondered why and when they started being placed there?
Up until a few years ago, the NBA jersey was logo-free sacred ground. Critics would liken the idea to a Nascar vehicle when people brought it up (“What are we, walking billboards?”). Nowadays, the NBA jersey is fair game; all 30 teams in the league have jumped on the sponsorship bandwagon.
2017: Nike Becomes NBA Apparel Brand
NBA jersey sponsorship is relatively new, starting just before the 2017-18 season. Nike took over for adidas as the NBA’s apparel sponsor that year and, following the popular soccer trend, added sponsor patches on the left shoulder of every NBA jersey. Each team decided who their sponsors would be, if any (currently, three teams—The Rockets, Kings, and Timberwolves—don’t have a jersey sponsor).
Nike and the NBA thought the move would increase revenue for the league—and they were right. The first season generated an extra $150M from those small logos on each jersey. Nike added the Jordan Jumpman in 2020 to boost their own income even further.
To younger fans, company logos and sponsorship adorning their favorite athlete’s chests may be par for the course. Older fans remember a different time, though—a time when the only thing allowed on your jersey was your team name and number. While jersey sponsorship isn’t a new trend, it had previously been relegated to sports outside the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL.
As David Byrne of the Talking Heads asked so innocently over forty years ago, “well, how did we get here”?
Jersey Sponsorship: A Brief History
To track the history of sponsorship in sports, we have to step away from basketball.
In the 1950s, Uruguayan soccer club Penarol is credited with the first jersey sponsorship. By the 1970s, German and English soccer leagues had followed suit. The idea was to help drive revenue to the sport by simply wearing a company’s logo on the front of their soccer kits (a term for jerseys).
At the same time, in the US, the sport of NASCAR was toying with the idea as well—only their driver’s “jersey” was a car speeding around a track at 200 miles per hour. At NASCAR’s inception in 1948, most sponsorships came from local businesses. Then, in 1970, NASCAR star Junior Johnson asked R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company to sponsor his car to help build revenue.
Around the same time, motor oil company STP was primed to make their mark on the sport after solidifying themselves in Indy car racing. They identified NASCAR icon Richard Petty as their guy. When Petty entered the garage with the now-famous STP car, the feeling around NASCAR sponsorship changed. Nowadays, sponsorships on NASCAR cars cost companies anywhere from $10-$25M annually.
By 1987, every Premier League soccer team had a sponsor on the front of their jerseys. It grew so much in popularity that sponsoring a Premier League team is a key investment for companies. For the 2020-21 season, Chevrolet will pay $40M to have its name and logo on the front of league powerhouse Manchester United’s jersey.
As for team sports in the US, even though NASCAR paved the way in the ‘70s, it took until 2006 for jersey sponsorship to take hold. It was fitting that a soccer team, Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake, became the first US team to have a sponsor.
It is crazy to think that less than five years ago, NBA jerseys had nothing but the team name and number on the front of their jerseys. The juxtaposition between NBA jerseys and English Premier League kits was substantial. Take a look:
The NBA jersey in the 2016-17 season had nothing extra—not even the NBA logo, which is saved for the shorts (as you can see in the picture of Kobe above). Now take a look at LeBron’s Lakers jersey:
See the difference?
NBA Jersey Sponsorship: How It’s Going, Where It’s Headed
The initial idea of adding sponsors to the jerseys was a trial run. After the 2017-18 season brought in an estimated $150M of revenue, however, the lid came off. The deal is also broken down nicely to share the wealth amongst the entire league.
According to the contract, each team gets to keep 50% of the revenue they generate from sponsorships. The other 50% is shared among the other 29 NBA teams. This move ensures a power balance within the league, keeping it more competitive than other sports (I’m looking at you, soccer).
Check out a list of team sponsors for this past 2020-21 season. These are always subject to change, but look at the big-time companies getting in on the NBA action:
- Atlanta Hawks – Sharecare
- Boston Celtics – Vistaprint
- Brooklyn Nets – Motorola
- Charlotte Hornets – LendingTree
- Chicago Bulls – Zenni Optical
- Cleveland Cavaliers – Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company
- Dallas Mavericks – Chime
- Denver Nuggets – Western Union
- Detroit Pistons – Flagstar Bank
- Golden State Warriors – Rakuten
- Houston Rockets – ROKiT Phone
- Indiana Pacers – Motorola Solutions
- LA Clippers – Honey Science Corp
- LA Lakers – Wish
- Memphis Grizzlies – FedEx
- Miami Heat – Ultimate Software
- Milwaukee Bucks – Harley Davidson
- Minnesota Timberwolves – None
- New Orleans Pelicans – Ibotta
- New York Knicks – Squarespace
- Oklahoma City Thunder – Love’s Travel Stops & Country Stores
- Orlando Magic – Walt Disney
- Philadelphia 76ers – StubHub
- Phoenix Suns – PayPal
- Portland Trailblazers – Biofreeze
- Sacramento Kings – None
- San Antonio Spurs – Frost Bank
- Toronto Raptors – Sun Life Financial
- Utah Jazz – 5ForTheFight
- Washington Wizards – Geico
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Jersey sponsorship is a lucrative venture. The inaugural 2017-18 season, when company logos showed up on jerseys, saw a shift in the NBA and the way they do business. Sure, they are always looking to make money, but the method was never this blatant.
To some fans, the idea of jersey sponsorship in the NBA is genius. In a league with multi-millionaire (and in some cases billionaire) owners, why would it be surprising for them to milk every dollar? To others, those who remember a simpler time when marketing didn’t ooze through their favorite sports, the idea of rich people making more money will never make sense.
There is no right or wrong answer, but the fact of the matter is that jersey sponsors are making the league money—and that’s what matters at the end of the day.
What are your thoughts about the jersey sponsorships? Let us know in the comments section below!