A Brief History of Jersey Sponsorship

via Getty Images
via Getty Images

Yesterday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke at a Sports Business Daily conference and said that the move to put sponsorship patches on team jerseys is "inevitable." He added that this revenue-increasing tactic will likely go into practice within the next five years.

Jersey sponsorship has its roots in soccer, but it has slowly begun to creep into the other major professional sports. Here’s a brief history of the practice, including some of the more interesting jersey sponsors over the years.

The Pioneers

Most soccer historians credit Peñarol, a Uruguayan club team, with introducing the concept of jersey sponsorship to the sports world during the 1950s. A handful of clubs in France, Denmark, and Austria turned to jersey sponsorship as a means of bringing in a little extra money in the years that followed, but most leagues throughout the rest of Europe were vehemently opposed to the idea and prohibited member teams from featuring names or logos other than their own on their shirts.

Jager Bomb Precedes Sponsorship Explosion

A new age in jersey sponsorship began in 1973, when Günter Mast, the nephew of Jagermeister creator Curt Mast, had the brilliant idea of placing the German liqueur’s stag and glowing cross logo on German Bundesliga squad Eintracht Braunschweig’s uniforms. Mast had previously launched a Jagermeister-sponsored motor racing team, but saw an incredible opportunity in the world’s top sport. “Through football, you could reach all sections of the population,” he said, according to a 2008 Soccernet article.

Mast paid Eintracht Braunschweig anywhere from 160,000 Marks to 800,000 Marks over five years to put the Jagermeister logo on the front of its shirts. Initially, the German football association denied the club’s request, but the league was powerless when Eintracht Braunschweig’s players voted to replace their traditional logo with the Jagermeister stag. On March 23, 1973, the team made its debut against Schalke in its new uniforms. Seven months later, the Bundesliga officially sanctioned jersey sponsorship.

England Reluctantly Joins the Sponsorship Party

Three years after the Jagermeister logo debuted on the pitch in Germany, Kettering Town of the English Southern League signed a four-figure sponsorship deal with Kettering Tyres and took the field with its sponsor’s name emblazoned across the front of its shirt. When league officials ordered the club to remove the name, Kettering responded by removing the last four letters in “TYRES” and claimed that “KETTERING T” stood for Kettering Town. The league didn’t find that explanation satisfactory and threatened the club with a hefty fine before it eventually removed all of the letters. One year later, English leagues began allowing jersey sponsorship.

Jersey Sponsorship Values Skyrocket

Over the last 35 years, jersey sponsorship deals have emerged as major revenue sources for clubs throughout the world, particularly in Europe. According to a report by SPORT+MARKT, the total invested in jersey sponsorship in Europe’s top five leagues doubled from 235 million euros in 2000 to 470 million euros in 2011.

One of the largest jersey sponsorship deals belongs to Manchester United, which agreed to a $131 million deal over four years with Chicago-based AON Corp after previously being sponsored by AIG. 

Barcelona Shells Out, Eventually Sells Out

While most of their European counterparts gave in to the temptation of jersey sponsorship long ago, FC Barcelona shunned the practice for the first 111 years of its storied existence. In 2006, the club announced an unusual agreement with UNICEF, whereby it would donate $1.5 million annually to the humanitarian organization and feature the UNICEF logo on the front of its classic jerseys.

In the face of growing financial pressures, the opportunity costs of not having a corporate sponsor became too great, however, and Barcelona announced a record-setting agreement with the Qatar Foundation last December. Starting on July 1, the Qatar Foundation’s logo will appear on the front of Barcelona’s shirts and the UNICEF logo will be moved to the back. Barcelona will receive $200 million over five years from the nonprofit.

All Sorts of Sponsors

Money talks, which leads to some interesting sponsors. Here are a few of the more amusing and interesting European jersey sponsorship deals over the years.

• Clydebank – Wet Wet Wet: In 1994, the Scottish pop rock band Wet Wet Wet’s cover of The Troggs’ “Love Is All Around” spent 15 weeks atop the British charts. Following that success, the band sponsored its hometown team.

• FC Nurnberg – Mister Lady: The garment company sponsored the German Bundesliga team, making Nurnberg the target of much ridicule. There’s no need for trash talk when you can simply point to your opponent’s chest. (See also: Oxford United – Wang Computers, AC Milan – Pooh Jeans, and many more.)

• West Brom – No Smoking: From 1984 to 1986, the West Midlands Health Authority paid to have the universal No Smoking sign placed on the front of West Bromwich Albion’s jerseys. The campaign featured the slogan, “Be like Albion – kick the smoking habit.”

• Scarborough – Black Death Vodka: The English Football League banned this sponsorship shortly after it was announced in 1990. “The company is wholly reputable,” Scarborough chairman Geoffrey Richard told reporters following the announcement. “It may be just a case of overreaction. It is perhaps understandable when efforts are being made to improve the sport’s image.”

• Portsmouth – Ty: The Ohio-based company responsible for Beanie Babies had its European headquarters in Portsmouth and sponsored the English Premier League team from 2002 to 2005.

Jersey Sponsorship in the United States

In 2006, Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake became the first major professional team in the United States to embrace jersey-front sponsorship when it announced a deal with XanGo, which produces nutritional supplement products. The Philadelphia Union is sponsored by Bimbo (pronounced BEEM-bo), a Mexico-based bakery. "I just think it's kind of dumb," Union fan Anne Ewing told a reporter after the sponsorship deal was announced. "We'll all have to explain it over and over and over again."

WNBA and D-League Join In

Shortly after the MLS broke the jersey sponsorship ice in the United States, the WNBA authorized its teams to feature sponsors’ logos on their uniforms. The Phoenix Mercury was the first team to take the bait, replacing its logo with that of LifeLock, which specializes in identity-theft protection. “We thought it was time we stepped outside the boundaries and bring additional value to our marketing partners,” Mercury president Jay Parry said.

The NBA Development League wasn’t far behind. In 2010, the league champion Rio Grande Valley Vipers forged a partnership with Lone Star National Bank, agreeing to feature the bank’s logo on the front of its jerseys. Around the same time, the NBDL’s Erie BayHawks announced a sponsorship agreement with the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM).

We’re Talking About Practice Jerseys

In 2009, the NFL allowed teams to sell sponsorship patches for their practice jerseys and several teams took advantage during training camp. Teams were prohibited from partnering with alcohol brands. The New Jersey Nets became the first NBA team to feature sponsorship on its practice jerseys as part of a deal with PNY Technologies later that year. Several NHL teams, including the Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks, and Vancouver Canucks, started selling practice jersey sponsorship.

Are game jerseys next? According to a Horizon Media study, the Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots and New York Giants could all land jersey sponsorship deals worth more than $14 million per year. The same study estimated the total potential value in jersey sponsorship across the four major American professional sports leagues is $371 million.

NBA Joins the Party

If you want an NBA jersey untouched by a sponsor's logo, you should probably buy one soon. The NBA's plans for sponsored jerseys would be worth an estimated $100 million to the league and, according to Adam Silver, "It just creates that much more of an opportunity for our marketing partners to get that much closer to our fans and to our players." In other words: "$$$."

According to reports, the sponsorship placement would amount to one 2½ inch by 2½ inch patch per jersey. That's not a lot of real estate on a 7'2" center, but there's definitely room to grow.

When Disco Demolition Night Nearly Demolished Chicago's Comiskey Park

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec was warming up on the mound when he noticed the rush of people on the field. Preparing for a second game in a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, the White Sox had lost the first by a score of 4-1. The crowd had been rowdy and insolent throughout, but this was something else.

As Kravec stood on the mound, thousands of attendees descended from the bleachers and slid down poles marking foul ball territory. They dug up dirt in the field and began running off with bases. A few tried removing home plate. Kravec soon joined his teammates in the dugout, where both the White Sox and the Tigers were staring in disbelief at the mayhem.

The source of their unrest was happening in center field. It was a bonfire made up of thousands of records, mostly disco, that the team had invited fans to bring with them for a reduced admission price. Management had expected perhaps 35,000 people. Nearly 50,000 showed up. On July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition Night would go down as one of the most infamous evenings in the history of Major League Baseball. It was not only the destruction that stirred controversy, but the concern that the demonstration had a far more disturbing subtext.

 

In the mid- to late-1970s, attendance at many major league baseball stadiums was down. Teams around the country tried a variety of stunts to stir interest, including Cleveland’s notorious 10-cent beer night in 1974 that sparked a mountain of misbehavior. The White Sox were in particularly dire need of something to reinvigorate their franchise. In 1979, an average of just 10,000 to 16,000 people were coming to their games, though Comiskey Park could seat 45,000.

Team owner Bill Veeck tried to turn the games into a spectacle. There was a scoreboard that could set off pyrotechnics and other attention-grabbing additions, but nothing seemed to stick. The action on field was equally tepid. Midway through the season, the Sox held a disappointing 35-45 record.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Veeck’s son, Mike Veeck, was assistant business manager for the team. Like many Chicago residents, he had heard local radio shock jock Steve Dahl on WLUP, an FM rock station serving the area. Dahl was prone to disparaging the then-popular genre of disco on air, playing records and then keying up an explosion sound effect. Dahl had lost his previous job on WDAI after it went all-disco, giving him an origin story of sorts for his contempt.

Dahl, of course, wasn’t entirely alone in his disco dismissal. A trendy and dance-friendly format, disco had been dominating airwaves and Billboard charts, with Donna Summer and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on heavy rotation and acts ranging from KISS to the Rolling Stones recording disco singles. Even 1977’s Star Wars scored a hit with a disco tie-in album. In the first half of 1979, 13 of the top 16 tracks were disco. Rock enthusiasts like Dahl thought the genre was inferior to their preferences and decried its widespread success.

Though Veeck had no particular opinion about disco, he saw an opportunity to partner with Dahl for a stunt. At Comiskey Park, attendees could get in for just 98 cents if they brought in one disco record for what was dubbed Disco Demolition Night. Once employees collected the records, Dahl would appear between the doubleheader with the Tigers and proceed to queue up an explosion.

Dahl agreed and promoted the appearance heavily on the air. The Veecks contacted Chicago police and asked for increased security as they expected up to triple their usual attendance as a result of the promotion—upwards of 35,000 people. With interest in the Sox low all season, it’s not clear that authorities took the request seriously.

They should have. Come July 12, people began lining up for the evening doubleheader as early as 4 p.m. A cursory glance at the crowd revealed that many of them were not baseball fans. There were a large number of teenagers as well as several attendees wearing concert T-shirts, a hint that the promotion had attracted people looking for a spectacle rather than a sporting event. Inside, many clung to their records instead of tossing them in the bins near the gates. As seats began filling up inside, thousands of people were armed with vinyl records. The scene had the makings of an active demonstration, not a passive entertainment.

As the White Sox and Tigers played their first game, spectators began tossing drinks and records onto the field. Chants of “disco sucks” filled the stadium. Firecrackers snapped in the air. When the game wrapped, Dahl emerged on the field in military fatigues, while a pile of disco records sat in center field. Inciting the crowd more, Dahl grabbed a microphone and let loose anti-disco invective before giving the signal to immolate the records. A fuse was lit and soon the pile was on fire.

Rather than pacify the crowd, the sight of the blaze seemed to embolden them. Kravec and the other players watched as people swarmed the field, sliding down poles and risking injury by jumping from the deck to the grass. Records were hurled, sticking into the ground. People tried to climb inside the skybox occupied by the wife and children of team manager Don Kessinger. Cherry bombs were ignited and exploded. The air took on a smoky atmosphere of flying projectiles, with an estimated 7000 people—almost the typical crowd of a regular season game—trampling the diamond.

Some players armed themselves with bats, their nearest available weapon. Announcer Harry Caray took to the public address system to call for order, which went ignored.

The crowd, however raucous, was largely nonviolent and no fights were reported. When police finally arrived 30 minutes later to restore order, 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. A vendor with a broken hip was the worst injury recorded. The main damage was to the field itself, which had been cratered by the explosion.

With no other alternative, the Sox were forced to forfeit the game, though the team wanted to call it a rain delay. The only rain had been from the beer bottles.

 

The official attendance was reported as 47,795, though Mike Veeck believed the crowd was as large as 60,000. Many had climbed over gates and overwhelmed ushers, crashing the stadium and getting in without paying admission. Disco Demolition Night had quickly turned from a purportedly clever marketing idea to a nightmare. Dahl would later admit to being more than a little scared by the whole ordeal.

The forfeit was the first by a major league team in five years. Soon, Bill Veeck would be out as president, selling the team in 1981; Mike Veeck didn’t get another job in baseball for 10 years—both situations reportedly due in large part to the near-riot that had transpired. But that would not be the only fallout from the stunt.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

As ushers admitted fans into the stadium, they noticed a number of the records being turned in were by black artists—not just disco, but soul, R&B, and other genres. Steve Wonder and Marvin Gaye were among the performers destined for the bonfire. Because disco was popular among minority groups including Latinos and the gay community, observers believed Dahl had stirred up something more sinister than a simple distaste for disco music.

“People started running up on me, yelling ‘Disco sucks!’ in my face, getting in my face, confronting me as a person that ‘represents’ disco, and there were thousands of people running around in this stadium buck wild,” Vince Lawrence, an usher at the stadium that night, told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2019. “I started going, ‘Wait a minute, why am I disco?’” Lawrence, who is black, was actually wearing a shirt endorsing Dahl’s radio station.

Later, Lawrence said he was surprised most of the media coverage had been about the damage done to the baseball field, not the undercurrent of the protest. “It was evident that it was seen as OK, because the next day it was in the paper everywhere, all over the news, but the biggest complaint about the issue was not, ‘Hey, why the heck is it OK to just actively destroy somebody’s culture?’ That wasn’t the story. The story was like, ‘Hey, the lawn on this baseball field got f***ed up.'"

In interviews, Dahl refuted any claims he had intended to stir up any racial animosity. He simply hated disco and decided to engage in the kind of promotional stunt common among disc jockeys at the time. But the controversy returned in summer 2019, when the White Sox offered a T-shirt “commemorating” the demolition stunt. The move was criticized for being in poor taste.

As a tool to diminish disco, Dahl and Veeck’s themed evening was somewhat successful. Radio stations took to playing less of it and record labels began to shy away from the genre, forcing it underground. Of course, it’s likely disco would have been a cultural fad regardless. But what is superficially an outrageous story about a sporting stunt gone awry has also been looked at as a rejection of what disco represented: a diversity in tastes and spirit. It's for that reason Disco Demolition Night remains an infamous black eye in baseball history.

The Secret Basketball Court Hidden Inside Disneyland's Matterhorn Mountain

Emily Burnett, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Emily Burnett, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Disneyland in Anaheim, California, is full of surprise details if you know where to look. Many Easter Eggs—like hidden Mickeys and Morse code messages from Walt—are common knowledge among fans, but one secret spot beneath Matterhorn Mountain is off-limits to guests. As Travel + Leisure reports, a new docuseries called The Imagineering Story, streaming on Disney+, offers the public a rare look at the basketball court tucked inside the park's iconic coaster.

Open since 1959, the Matterhorn Bobsleds takes guests on a thrilling adventure through a snowy peak modeled after the landmark in the Alps. From the outside, the roller coaster could be mistaken for a real mountain, but the "backstage area" beneath the facade looks a lot less magical. With space to spare, Disney employees set up a half-court with one basketball hoop in the structure's pinnacle.

In the first episode of The Imagineering Story, Disney Imagineer (one of the attraction designers) Bob Gurr gives viewers a tour of the mountain's interior—including its famous basketball court. According to Gurr, the court has long been a place for Disneyland Cast Members working on the ride to unwind on their breaks. Some parts of the rumor have been fabricated—the space isn't a regulation-size court, and it wasn't installed to cheat building ordinances—but the Disneyland legend is based in truth.

The Imagineering Story offers behind-the-scenes looks at the making of Disney's iconic properties. In each episode, the Disney+ original series features footage from the parks' history and insightful interviews with Imagineers.

Disneyland isn't the only American institution with a secret basketball court. There's one on the fifth floor of United States Supreme Court Building, and it's naturally called "The Highest Court in the Land."

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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