August 10th, 2009

Is Advertising on Bears Practice Jersey Just a Start?

By Ed Sherman
Crain's Chicago Business

It wasn’t that long ago that the field of play in baseball was free from any kind of advertising.

Then a team strategically placed an ad behind first base, allowing it to come in full view over the pitcher’s shoulder on television. Soon after, all bets were off, and you had sign boards behind the plate and ads on the outfield walls, even walls that are mostly covered with ivy. The pristine playing field no longer is pristine.

Well, the same thing could be happening with uniforms in the NFL.

You’ve probably noticed that the Bears’ practice jerseys in training camp sport the logo for NorthShore University HealthSystem. The hospital group is getting huge exposure for the placement. On consecutive days last week, the A-1 front of the Chicago Tribune had close-up shots of Brian Urlacher and Jay Cutler that had the NorthShore logo almost jumping off the page.

Chris Hibbs, the Bears’ senior director of sales and marketing, wouldn’t disclose how much NorthShore is paying the Bears, but safe to say it has to be significant seven figures.

This is the first time the Bears have allowed a company logo on their practice jersey; you’ll see it throughout their weekly practice sessions during the season, too.

“This was done at the behest of the marketing guys,” Mr. Hibbs said. “We went to the league and said, ‘Let’s do something more creative, more out of the box.’ “

Not sure if this qualifies as out-of-the box as much as a natural evolution of where marketing is going as it relates to uniforms. In Europe, soccer teams all sport corporate logos on their jerseys. Chicago-based Aon Corp. reportedly will pay Manchester United $32 million per year to have its three letters on the front of the famed soccer team’s jerseys.

Imagine what the Bears could pull in from a company to place its logo on a game-day jersey? How much for the Cubs?

For now, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the league has no plans to place corporate advertising on game jerseys. Currently, all you see is the logo for Reebok, which pays huge money to be the producers of the official NFL jerseys.

“The challenge is to maintain the brand equity of the NFL while finding new ways to engage sponsors,” Mr. Hibbs said. “There’s the feeling that practice jerseys and game jerseys are different things.”

Yes, but aren’t we seeing the crack in the door here? Could this be the first step to Miller Lite being the proud jersey sponsor of the Green Bay Packers?

“That’s a good question,” Mr. Hibbs said. “If you look at Wrigley Field, it was clean a few years ago. Now you have Under Armour ads on the outfield wall and (sign board behind the plate). The NFL has worked hard to keep gross commercialization far away from the game field. Putting company logos on the game jerseys would be a major departure. But a decade from now, who knows what’s going to happen? You’ve got to pay salaries, you’ve got to generate revenue for increased expenses.”

I think the NorthShore logo on the practice jersey is the precursor to what’s coming down the road. Teams won’t be able to ignore the millions that will be there for product placement on the linebacker’s right shoulder, just over the number.

It might be another 10 years, but when the time comes, perhaps Aon might be ready to put its three letters on a Bears jersey. After all, it is a local company, and it will be used to paying the big bucks. 

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