The big news last week before the MLS’s Chicago Fire flew south to Florida to begin their winter training camp was not a star player signing, or a new coach, or an addition to their Toyota Park home. Instead, the press conference, the video desperate for virulence, and fan community chatter were all centered on a common pantry item: oatmeal. On Tuesday, it was revealed that The Quaker Oats Company (a tentacle of PepsiCo) would pay the Fire at least $7.5 million to place their name and Quaker Larry’s smug face across the chests of their players for the next three years. And the reaction of the fan community to turning their beloved Fire into athletic billboards for rice cakes and granola bars? Excitement, enthusiasm, even relief.
“Put the quaker head on the jersey for that kinda coin!!,” wrote one fan on the message board for the team’s supporter club, Section 8.
“So nice to have a sponsor back. And a local company to boot! Goes well with a health and fitness theme,” wrote another on the Big Soccer forums.
In most American sports, fans have learned to block out the countless corporate partnerships inked by their favorite teams. Only the most deranged of fans knows the identity of the Official Ambulance Provider of the New Orleans Saints, or choose a cell phone carrier based on who bought naming rights to their team’s arena. While our brains’ ability to develop an ad filter allows us to still enjoy a sporting event despite the endless parade of brand name shout-outs, it does have its limits. The jersey, in all other sports save the WNBA, is sacred ground, where the proposal of anything beyond a tasteful swoosh or three-stripe pattern on the lapel causes fans to freak out as though the McDonald’s arches were being painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
But in MLS, the jersey sponsor isn’t just accepted, it’s expected. Go without a sponsor for a season, as the Fire did in 2010 after being dumped by Best Buy, and risk being seen as a small-time franchise, unworthy of corporate interest. Even when compared to the LA Galaxy advertising shady herbal supplements or Real Salt Lake hocking a pyramid scheme/energy drink or Philadelphia’s jerseys colorfully proclaiming BIMBO, the NO LOGO aesthetic of the Fire made them look to some like second-class citizens.
“The teams that don't have sponsors on the jersey are made fun of,” said Tweed Thornton, founder of Chicago Fire blog Hot Time in Old Town. “Whereas if the Jacksonville Jaguars put a corporate name on their jersey (not that they are even allowed to), they would be the joke of the league.”
Last week, the main sticking point for Fire fans over the Quaker deal was not ethical, but sartorial. The lack of a logo allowed last year’s jersey to stay mostly true to the original look when the club was founded in 1997, with “FIRE” written en flambé on a bold white stripe stretched across the chest of a fire engine red kit. In a league where most teams take the University of Oregon approach to uniform continuity, this was an invaluable point of pride for some Fire loyalists.
“As with most things surrounding this team as of late, I am... conflicted,” wrote one fan on the Section 8 board. “Obviously the money coming in from the sponsorship is good for the team. I just didn't think our tradition could be bought for a measly 8 mil.”
Indeed, the Fire’s slogan (embroidered on the collar of the new jersey) may be “Tradition. Honor. Passion.,” but in MLS, those millions go far. U.S. soccer fans may be portrayed as anti-mainstream hipsters, but arguably no stateside fanbase is more literate on the financial minutia of their league, and less sentimental fans recognize the real value of aligning with Big Oatmeal. In 2011, the league salary cap for 2011 was around $2.675 million, so $2.5 million a year is a windfall. Covering the salaries of the rank and file could allow Fire ownership (the creepily vague private investment firm Andell Holdings) to splurge on a designated player, another luxury item the team lacked, coincidentally or not, during their unsponsored 2011 season. In order to keep up with the Beckhams and Henrys of the league, many Fire fans appear happy to sacrifice the white stripe for Quaker-brand navy blue.
But jersey sponsorship is also a symptom of the central paradox of MLS fanship: the drive to create a unique league identity clashing with the desire to be taken as seriously as the major European leagues. MLS fans endlessly bellyache about the concessions MLS makes to casual American sports fans: the extended playoff, amateur draft, lack of promotion/relegation. Jersey sponsorships, as gross as they can sometimes be, are a profitable method to align MLS visually with the European leagues that fans, clubs, and the league can all agree on.
Like a fungus, advertisements find a way to squeeze into the margins of a sport without commercial breaks. In Europe, the American jersey design priorities are flipped, with a small club crest dwarfed by the sponsor in the place of honor (and not just in soccer: the same goes for basketball, rugby, and other continental favorites). The virgin purity of “the beautiful game” has held a price tag for a couple generations, since 1973, when Jagermeister’s patronage of a West German team led to the first front-of-jersey logo. Today, the advertising creep has spread across the continent, last year conquering even the idealistic FC Barcelona, who traded their charitable UNICEF jerseys for shirts advertising the “charitable” Qatar Foundation for a cool $232 million. Even for non-Europhile MLS fans, those lucrative deals set a seductive precedent.
“I think, across the board, teams in other countries having jersey sponsors makes it acceptable,” Thornton said. “It's hard to argue that the Chicago Fire have bastardized their jersey by putting the names of Quaker and Best Buy on them when the best teams in the world in the same sport all have done the same.”
Beyond the initial check, jersey sponsor changes provide a secondary, somewhat cynical opportunity for team revenue – the classic all-red shirts of Liverpool haven’t changed in over a century, so the selling point on each season’s “new” home jersey is usually the new corporate logo it sports. Being caught in the Kop in one of Liverpool’s Carlsberg jerseys of the 00’s instead of the current double-helix of global bank Standard Chartered risks being labeled a casual fan.
But the greed of European teams looks more like survival in MLS. To Thornton, the less savory aspects of jersey sponsorship are a necessary evil for a team in a sport with a long history of failure in the United States. Besides the “validation” of bagging a big-name sponsor, there’s the potential for added visibility through sponsor/team events and ad campaigns – activities taken for granted in other sports, but essential for a soccer team to stay visible in a crowded sports landscape. It’s worth it to open up the Fire to opposing team chants built upon Wilford Brimley jokes and fiber-related humor. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, after all, and unless there’s a day when MLS clubs find firmer footing, the ads are bound to be a part of American soccer.
“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,” Thornton said. “You look at the Cubs, White Sox, Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, they all are doing just fine without having a sponsor on their jersey, they figured out other ways to get around it. I could see a day where MLS sponsorship is flipped on its head and it becomes a joke to have to sell your jersey. You are so financially unstable and unpopular you need it.”