PRESS BOX VIEW
Signs Of The Times
By Scott Robertson
Baseball purists were sent into a spin a few weeks back when word leaked out that Major League Baseball was considering allowing companies to place small ads on the sleeves of the players' uniforms. I consider myself to be something of a purist (if there is such a creature) in that I believe some things should never change. Others, though, must, and this is one of them.
First of all, Ted Turner beat baseball to the punch on this one back in the mid-'70s. In the days before the Superstation, Turner, who owns the Atlanta Braves, bought free agent pitcher Andy Messersmith. Those were the days when major league teams moved away from the traditional gray road uniforms and white home uniforms and went to the color-splashed outfits that made most look like beer league softball teams. Were any uniforms uglier than the mustard and ketchup Houston Astros or the brown and gold of the San Diego Padres?
Anyway, back to Messersmith and the Braves. Atlanta wore pinstriped red, white and blue uniforms and took the concept one step further, allowing players to wear their nicknames or first names on their backs. Turner had Messersmith, who wore No. 17, wear the word "Channel," across his back-hence, when Messersmith pitched, he basically was a walking billboard for Turner-owned WTBS Channel 17.
The latest approach is nothing that offensive. We're talking about 1-inch by 1-inch ads on the sleeves. Certain restrictions apply, of course-no media outlets can advertise, for example. But Major League Baseball has taken great pains to ensure observers that not much more would come of it.
The bottom line, of course, is the baseball projection that the ads would generate some $30 million, some of which would find its way back to the teams. In an era when all franchises are seeking different revenue streams to help keep themselves competitive, this kind of money is vital. If kept on an even keel, and not allowed to become a situation where the rich get richer, it is another attempt to help baseball cope with the economics of today's game.
Hockey has evolved through this argument. Remember, there were cries when NHL teams began putting advertising on the dasher boards, and then when those ads found their way to the ice surface itself. Maybe few remember the 1979 Challenge Cup between the NHL and Soviet All-Stars. The final game of that three game series was played in Madison Square Garden and was televised nationally-except for the fact that the television cameras would not raise their views far enough to allow viewers to see the ads on the boards on the side opposite the camera.
Now, every hockey arena in the league has those ads. You don't hear the purists complaining any more, as teams and fans realize this kind of thinking is necessary to meet the player payroll and other rising costs.
There also were complaints when the Nike swoosh found its way on to Penn State's football jerseys. Equipment companies, though, are naturals to use their logos on their products. Anyone who does not know the brand of chest protector Jason Kendall wears has never seen the center field camera shot.
Major League Baseball, though, must be careful. First of all, once you implement this strategy, you can't go back. Remember, the designated hitter was experimental. Once those ads get on the shirts, they won't come off, and there always will be a cry to add more.
That can't be allowed to happen, lest major league teams begin looking like professional hockey teams in Sweden and Europe. Their jerseys are covered with ads, to the point they look horrible.
Strict guidelines are necessary. For one, while marketing is critical, some things should remain sacred. I mean, I thought the World Series logo that was stitched onto the New York Yankee caps was going too far. There is no doubt a need to increase revenue, but there also is a need to preserve the traditions of the game. A small ad on the sleeve seems to me inoffensive-the larger ad on the hat seemed, to me at least, to be defiling a tradition.
Baseball needs to remain close to its traditions, but it also must move forward to deal with the economics of today's game. Let the small ads on the sleeves stay-it's not like players will be wearing sandwich boards in the outfield.
But draw the bottom line right there.