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Jerseys plus TV equals $$$
September 29th, 2006 1:39AM
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Ever since Red Bull took over the train wreck formerly known as the MetroStars, full-blown jersey sponsorship league-wide was only a matter of time.

Contingent upon the deal being approved by the board of governors was permission for "Red Bull" to be prominently displayed on the front of the jersey, as is common throughout the world, and for MLS teams to cut their own sponsorship deals.

Sponsor names have adorned MLS team jerseys since the league began play in 1996 but in every case besides Red Bull those were national sponsorships, not team deals. MLS may have been one of the first leagues to put sponsor names on the back side of a player's shorts, an innovation of perhaps questionable appeal.

One reason AEG president Tim Leiweke is so anxious to sign David Beckham is Leiweke desperately wants the Beckham mystique to drive a lucrative shirt-sponsorship deal. Along with the thousands of jerseys that could be sold on Beckham's name alone, the Galaxy and its shirt sponsor would enjoy extensive exposure with all the photo and video images Beckham commands.

A Ronaldo or even Claudio Reyna Red Bull jersey could be a premium item.

But the missing element to a shirt-sponsorship windfall for MLS isn't stars or sex appeal. It's television, and as much as the league trumpets its coverage on national and regional broadcasters, there is usually a game or two every week that either isn't televised or carried exclusively on HDNet, which costs consumers hundreds of dollars for equipment and service.

Race-car drivers and their cars have been plastered with logos and corporate symbols for decades. Those images are fuzzy blurs to fans in the stands not equipped with binoculars, but vividly visible on television and in photographs. Television and prominent sponsorship exposure helped elevate NASCAR from a regional niche sport to a national powerhouse.

Along with shirt sponsorship, the league is hammering out details of having every game televised starting next season. National coverage will include the ESPN2/ABC package, Fox Soccer Channel, Univision, and HDNet. New England, D.C. United and Red Bull New York have the most extensive regional packages, while only when the team was sold last month did Kansas City resume regional broadcasts.

Teams pay for regional broadcasts themselves, with the league picking up a portion of the cost in some cases. And cost has been the obstacle, even though pro teams in most sports would scoff at the $20,000 to $30,000 per game outlay to be a deterrent.

But if teams can get $500,000 to $1 million for a jersey sponsorship, which is considered quite feasible by league executives, the regional broadcasts can be covered easily, and with additional telecasts, theoretically a team can also charge more for its local sponsorships. A two-hour telecast generates hundreds of "looks" at players' jerseys; teams such as Red Bull, Chivas USA and the Galaxy also produce half-hour pregame shows that add value.

Some teams, justifiably so, are still leery about televising more than a few home games as they believe the home gate suffers. But every team should have every road match televised, plain and simple, and with the national broadcast windows spread amongst three nights (ESPN2 on Thursdays, FSC and HdNet on Saturdays, Univision on Sundays) starting next season, both the national and regional coverage will be extensive.

MLS still needs to address attendance problems for midweek and Sunday matches and how to deal with games televised locally, assuming it doesn't or can't impose a television blackout for national broadcasts in the home market. (D.C. United objected to playing at home on Sunday afternoons to accommodate Univision telecasts during the network's coverage from 1996 to 1999, claiming a dropoff of 40 percent in its home attendance.)

In the mainstream sports press, MLS will take heat for approving sponsor names across the chest, which other American pro sports leagues prohibit. And a few teams will struggle to generate a suitable deal, since their presence in the market is barely discernable.

But no longer can the league afford, literally, to limit its television reach, since with just 12 spread around the USA, its national presence is negligible compared to other leagues. If the teams want the sponsors, and the sponsors need the visual "hits," the games - and the jerseys - have to be on TV.

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