There’s a reason baseball is called America’s Pastime. When the Green Bay Packers won the first Super Bowl, or Bill Russell’s Celtics ushered in the modern NBA, the World Series had already crowned six decades of champions. So while football may bring the biggest spectacle in American sports, and NBA players the biggest stars, baseball is tied to American history in a way no other game is.
But that long-standing tradition and deep roots make change difficult—even something as innocuous as a new apparel sponsor. Nike signed an apparel deal with the MLB last January, so the new jerseys unveiled this week for the 2020 season aren’t a surprise. But the MLB world is on fire thanks to one simple change: Nike’s swoosh will appear on the chest, while Majestic, the previous apparel sponsor, put its logo on the sleeve.
When compared to the prominent placement of brands on jerseys for top-flight football clubs, or even the new sponsorship patches being worn in the NBA, this is about as small as a jersey change could be. But for baseball purists, any shift in the iconic jerseys is an issue.
“One thing that makes MLB fans very different from the other fans is that nostalgia is a huge part of what drives that fandom,” said Lou Kovacs, president of marketing and events for Octagon North America, a sports and entertainment agency. “Any time MLB tries to do something new, they are going to get a negative reaction from a part of the fan base. They are probably the fan base most resistant to change.”
Even when the NBA allowed teams to license out third-party sponsorship deals for ad space on their jerseys in 2017, NBA fans didn’t cause this much backlash.
The Chicago Tribune calls it “garish” and says the swoosh “already looks like a stain.” Social media is predictably aghast, as well. One Twitter user says the swoosh appears to be “beating the bird over the head” on the St. Louis Cardinals’ uniforms, while plenty more echo a chorus of “ugly,” “tacky” and “amateur.”
“We’re excited to bring Nike’s innovation and creative expertise to our partnership with MLB,” a Nike spokesperson said. “We have a rich history of fusing heritage with innovation, and truly see that coming to life with MLB in the coming years.”
While the Nike logo may not seem like a drastic intrusion, the real reason fans are upset is because they feel like this may be the first step down a road they don’t want to be on.
“I think many of us are concerned about logo creep,” said Ricky Cobb, founder of the Twitter MLB fan account Super 70s Sports. “Gradually, over time, logo positioning on uniforms has become considerably more aggressive as manufacturers seek maximum bang for their buck on uniform deals. Now we have the Nike swoosh about to adorn the chests of every major league player—and while I’m not thrilled about it myself, the bigger problem is, what’s next? What’s the next piece of real estate to be tagged?”
It’s a valid question. Now that Nike’s freed up real estate on the sleeves, who’s to say that won’t be filled by other brand partnerships in the future? Nielsen calculated the value of that sleeve spot and found it would likely be more valuable than the NBA deal. By fighting back against even the slightest jersey change, MLB fans may be able to delay the inevitable logo creep for a while.
In the soccer world, the relationship of brands with jerseys is different. The most prominent logo on a team’s jersey is almost always a brand: Arsenal with Fly Emirates, Barcelona with Rakuten and Bayern Munich with Deutsche Telekom. In many ways, these brands feel as much a part of the jersey as the actual team logo.
Considering these clubs have a history that dates back to the 1800s, tradition feels like a flimsy excuse for MLB fans to protest the uniform change. In reality, it’s more about the relationship fans have with their teams. Thanks to the promotion/relegation system used in international football leagues, fans are tied to just one club, rather than the league as a whole. As clubs need money to buy the best players, selling that jersey space theoretically improves the on-field performance of a team.
While the MLB still uses a free-market system, unlike the salary caps adopted by other American sports leagues, this Nike deal doesn’t give a team a leg up on anyone else. That’s a crucial distinction for why one tradition-rich league tolerates substantial brand placement while the other resists a small change.
But change is coming. MLB attendance has been slowly declining year-over-year, so teams are going to start looking for alternate revenue streams. With plenty of blank space in the most enviable spots on the diamond, it was only a matter of time before brands began appearing. Logo creep may even eventually supplant the Yankees’ NY in the most prominent spot on the pinstripes—but not if MLB diehards have anything to say about it.
The Fans. The Brands. Social Good. The Future of Sports. Don't miss the upcoming Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit and Upfronts, a live virtual experience on Nov. 16-19. Early-bird passes available until Oct. 26. Register now.