Coming soon to pro athletes' jerseys: Ads

The four major U.S. professional sports leagues have watched their counterparts elsewhere in the world reap millions in deals from ads placed on their players' uniforms, and now they want a piece of that action.

Many details still need to be worked out, such as whether such sponsorships will be sold by the leagues, the teams or both. Teams and leagues also may face trouble selling ads to a company such as Nike (NKE) if a player on their team has a personal endorsement deal with Reebok or another rival.

Even so, these are minor details that sports marketing experts say will be ironed out in the next five years because the money from these deals is too good to ignore. Manchester United, one of the most well-known soccer teams in the U.K.'s Premiere League, recently signed a jersey ad deal with General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet division. Spanish team Real Madrid won a $40 million per season deal from Emirates Airlines. And Qatar Airlines made a similar deal with FC Barcelona.

These deals have plenty of appeal for sponsors, according to experts.

"It's great from an exposure standpoint to be visible that often in sports, which is one the last genres of television that most people watch live," said Jeff Nelson, vice president of Navigate Research, a market research firm specializing in sports and entertainment. "That's huge for brand awareness and staying top of mind."

U.S. pro sports teams could win jersey logo contracts that are equal to if not better than the deals their counterparts in Europe have obtained. Moreover, sports marketing experts doubt that most fans would raise a fuss over corporate logos on jerseys.

The National Basketball Association may the first to move down this path. The NBA considered the idea in 2012 but shelved it after not figuring out how teams would split the revenue. Commissioner Adam Silver recently told reporters he thought it was "inevitable that we will have some form of sponsorships on our jerseys," though he declined to provide a specific timetable.

"The prototypical jerseys Silver has in mind would probably be more like those in European football than the plastered billboard collages of NASCAR or professional cycling," wrote John Vrooman, a professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, in an email. "The NBA has experimented with the idea of replacing team names on the fronts of jerseys with a sponsor's name but has been reluctant to change until now."

The National Hockey League is said to be resisting jersey ads for now, even though published reports estimate the league could earn $120 million annually from doing so.

Some NHL teams have had ads on their practice jerseys for years. To avoid upsetting fans, Commissioner Gary Bettman doesn't want the NHL to be the first league in North America to sell these types of marketing messages. An NHL spokesperson didn't respond to requests for comment for this story.

The pressure to sell jersey ads will be less prominent on the National Football League, which is by far the most popular and lucrative of any U.S. professional sport, earning a reported $6 billion in revenue in 2013. Nonetheless, experts anticipate jersey ads will eventually appear there along with Major League Baseball uniforms.

"The NFL doesn't need the money, and Major League Baseball has been slow to turn," said Brad Rothenberg, managing director at Lead Dog marketing, in an interview. He added that he expects both leagues to join the fray because the money is too good to forego.

Both NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy and MLB spokesman Matt Bourne told CBS MoneyWatch they aren't putting corporate logos on player's uniforms.

"We never say never, but there are no plans to do so," McCarthy said.

Still, logos can be found at center court in many NBA games along with every flat surface at hockey, basketball, football and baseball facilities. Although people may have objected to those ads at first, they've gotten used to seeing them, and experts say the same will probably happen in the case of jersey logos.

Said Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross: "Within a season or two, fans will assume this is how it's always been."

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.