Stadium sponsors, virtual ads, and the future of sports marketing

Baseball billboards

All professional sports leagues plaster their arenas with ads. Baseball parks mount billboards behind home plate. The NFL sells its sidelines to Gatorade. Basketball arenas paint logos on the parquet. Of all the “Big Four” pro leagues, the NHL is crassest; corporate logos crowd the ice surface, and LED screens have even been mounted on the sideboards, blinding fans and players alike.

What’s the problem?

Such commercialism makes sense, at least superficially. Pro sports franchises exist to make money. If a team can sell the ad space, why not? Why not squeeze a little more “free money” out of the fan experience?

Because it’s not “free money”. Every added advert has invisible costs that undermine both your fans’ good will and your franchise’s public image:

First, ad bloat disrespects your best customers. The fans attending the game have already spent hundreds of dollars to visit the arena in person. You owe them the best experience possible. Instead, you auction off their eyeballs to the highest corporate bidder. Fans may not register this transaction consciously, but the flashing lights and constant promotions irritate and overwhelm them. Some may start to wonder what, exactly, they’re paying for.

Second, ad oversaturation cheapens the sport. It’s a constant, visual reminder that even the finest athletic drama is manufactured. Rather than selling the game or the athletes, you’re selling them shitty hamburgers or scammy life insurance policies.

How to fix it

So how should pro sports handle sponsorships? What are some alternatives to the current heavy-handed approach?

If there must be ads, teams should try to negotiate for a single arena sponsor. This would eliminate the “corporate wallpaper” effect fans currently endure. Displaying a single brand’s logo would pull together the aesthetics of the space and help fans concentrate on the game itself. It’s good for the sponsor, too; they get pride of place and no longer have to jockey for position with fifty other companies.

But what’s better than a single sponsor? No sponsors. What if a venue eliminated all physical, in-arena ads?

“Stripping down the altar” in this way would reward those fans who pay to see the game in-person. They get the real fan experience: an ad-free shrine to the team: its banners, its logos, its players, its history. After all, isn’t that the actual product the teams are trying to sell (not ketchup or lottery tickets or lawnmowers)?

Those watching at home (i.e., those who refuse to pay up) would miss out on this “authentic” experience. Unlike the live audience, which bought tickets, TV viewers would continue to “pay” for the game by watching ads.

Invisible ads

In fact, TV broadcasts might double down on ads. In addition to the regular commercial breaks interrupting the action, broadcasts could bump up the in-game advertising as well. These days, ads can be digitally composited into a live video shot. So, go ahead; digitally paint logos on the baseball diamond (subtly shaded to look like artistic mowing). Lay ads under the hockey ice. Frost the backboard with a sponsor every time you replay that nasty dunk.

Moving to all-digital advertising has practical advantages. For example, switching out sponsors on the fly becomes easy. If a major scandal about a sponsor breaks twenty minutes before game time, there’s no need to pull down an in-house billboard. Simply scrub the sponsor from the ad roll.

When appropriate, broadcasts could even excise ads altogetherWhen you’re raising a championship banner or marking a former coach’s tragic death, you don’t want a Burger King logo in the background. At those key moments, keep the audience’s focus where it belongs.

In-game drama might merit cutting the ads, too. When the stress level runs high and a postseason bid is on the line, let your viewers focus on the action. Or, more likely, take advantage of those prime moments. Charge your sponsors more when more fans tune in. During a close game, the price scales up. In overtime, the price skyrockets. When a pitcher closes in a perfect game, ad prices go through the roof. Conversely, during halftime replays (when viewers visit the kitchen or hit the loo), ad costs could drop dramatically.

Push back the line

Teams already know there’s a fine line between tasteful sponsorship and crass commercialism. After all, why don’t players wear Pepsi patches on their shorts, or GEICO logos on their helmets? Because it looks ridiculous.

I’d simply argue that franchises need to redraw that line—to reweigh the costs and benefits of in-arena sponsorship. Digital advertisements may make that reconsideration possible. They offers teams (and their broadcasting partners) an opportunity to improve the fan experience and to create new revenue streams.