Of the many verbal battles I've waged, perhaps I was most wrong, and most comprehensively defeated, on the subject of jersey sponsorship. I simply could not believe Americans would tolerate corporate logos on their jerseys. To make a long story short, American soccer fans have so far proven remarkably adaptable. MLS fans cheerfully, literally unthinkingly, wear shirts where their beloved club logo is dwarfed by Herbalife, or Xango, or Amway. And - this is the interesting thing - no one calls them on it.
Thus another milestone proving soccer's growing acceptance in America - mainstream soccerphobes don't bring up the corporate whoring of association football. Probably because that battle has been lost on a lot of other fronts.
Take, for example, the Super Bowl. Until very very recently, the Super Bowl was the model for MLS. The Super Bowl is about football like "Lord of the Flies" was about flies. People openly watch for the commercials. NFL fans would quickly accept sponsor names on jerseys - everything else has already been sold, after all. So why hasn't it happened?
Soccer is the only major sport apart from auto racing with no breaks in the action. Unless we count the Tour de France as major. But that said, just look at the amount of ads on stock cars and bicycle shirts. (And networks still cut away to commercials during races. I tend to apologize to God when I go a day or two without thanking Him for not making me a NASCAR fan.)
You could make a case that the NFL holds the line on jersey ads to preserve the league's integrity. If you don't die laughing first. Even then, these days the uniforms themselves are the ads. The Dallas Cowboys, for example, would lose uncountable amounts of brand recognition if they replaced the star on their helmet with, say, the Herbalife leaf.
And nobody actually buys or wears helmets. That space has already been sold - to advertise the team. (Yes, even the Cleveland Browns. Being above posing is also a pose.)
But what about the jerseys? Turns out putting ads on NFL jerseys would actually devalue the revenue from the game-time commercials. Why buy valuable television time when your ad is going to be front and center all game? Worse still, team sponsorship is just that - team-based. The NFL likes to centralize revenue, to put it mildly.
Which is why, out of the myriad ways the World Cup is ruthlessly commercialized, jersey sponsorships are not allowed. FIFA, like the NFL, is strictly enforcing its commercial space - and if corporations were allowed to make deals with individual national associations to simply stick their name on a jersey, what price "official beer of the Qatar World Cup"?
So what is our future? Will we or future American soccer fans be finally reduced to completely passive consumers? Will the league achieve its long-dreamt goal of being yet another marketing funnel?
Well, no fate but what we make, as one of Governor Schwarzenegger's co-workers said. The higher-seed MLS Cup is a hugely symbolic step in the right direction of making sure passionate fans are part of the championship...or a tacit admission that there aren't enough passive MLS fans yet able to sell out a neutral site. Either way, if it's successful, hometown fans will give MLS Cup a tradition distinct from the Super Bowl. (Or someone will decide to make MLS Cup home and home, or best of three. If basketball, baseball and hockey can have a bunch of championship games, why not soccer?)
I can't speak for the Chicago experience, but (perhaps because the Galaxy's sponsor is arguably the worst in the league) I certainly don't look down on teams that leave their shirts virginal. But from what I've read, Mitchum's observations speak for the majority - any sponsor is better than no sponsor. Mitchum - who rightfully calls advertising on jerseys a "fungus" - closes his article with a quote from Section 8's Tweed Thornton:
The older a team is, the more stable is becomes. If a team can have a classy look and make the big bucks, I could see them shedding the jersey sponsor.
I wish he was right, but those teams in the Premier League are pretty old and stable, and they grub for sponsors like crazy. I loved Aston Villa for wearing the name of a children's hospice, but they couldn't do it forever. As far as I know, there isn't even the hint of a movement to rid jerseys of advertising in Europe, especially now that Barcelona went from the high horse straight into the sewer. In theory the FA or the Premier League could try to pass a rule - assuming that, totally unlike the NFL, the Premier League is stronger than the teams that comprise it - but, as with player salary rules, the clubs would simply use the excuse that they need sponsorship to compete in Europe. The real reason would be, why would they want to forgo money, or share it with hated rivals? A similar line of thought will prevent UEFA from banning shirt sponsors in the Champions League, the occasional alcohol-sponsored teams going blank in France notwithstanding.
And as long as Europe wears ads, the rest of the world will too. MLS would never have been able to pioneer commercial jerseys without vastly more popular and powerful clubs clearing the path. Now that ads are not only on the front of the jerseys, but seen as necessary, we're pretty much stuck with them.
I wish sometimes MLS could at least follow Aston Villa's lead, and put on the names of some of their non-controversial charitable sponsors front and center. Like the Boy Scouts, or Susan G. Komen.
....on second thought, maybe Amway isn't so bad.