Brand Strategy

Why more US leagues are embracing sponsored jersey patches, encroaching on ‘sacred’ real estate

Jersey sponsorships can be as expensive as stadium naming rights. Are they worth the cost?
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Francis Scialabba

6 min read

Sports jerseys hold a special place in the hearts of athletes and fans. They’re hung at stadiums, worn around the world, and, in some cases, sold for $10 million.

They’re also “walking advertisements,” according to Scott Jablonski, who’s worked at the NBA, NHL, and several other sports and entertainment companies throughout his career. The English Premier League has emblazoned brand names on its jerseys for decades. US leagues, on the other hand, have been more hesitant about allowing brands onto that “sacred” real estate, as several sports marketers put it.

Many American leagues have changed their tune as of late: Among the Big Four, the NBA was a relatively early adopter, first adding sponsor patches for the 2017–18 season. The NHL green-lit ads on uniforms for the 2022–23 season, and sponsor patches started showing up on MLB jerseys for the first time this year. The NFL still doesn’t have them.

While they’ve become more common stateside, jersey sponsorships are expensive—they can go for about as much as stadium-naming rights. Plus, some fans haven’t exactly embraced them, which can make it harder still for marketers to convince their C-suites to sign off on the spend. Those who can make their brands appear on the heads, hearts, or arms of beloved athletes stand to boost brand awareness.


There was a time not too long ago when jersey patches in the big US leagues were unthinkable, according to Lou DePaoli, president of executive search and team consulting at sports marketing and management firm General Sports Worldwide, who’s worked in pro sports for three decades across teams and leagues.

Around 2007, he was representing the Atlanta Thrashers NHL team (now the Winnipeg Jets) at a league meeting and put forth the idea of jersey sponsorships to help increase revenue. “They looked at us and said we were crazy,” he said. Same story when he went on to work in MLB. But eventually, the idea became “much more prevalent and acceptable,” DePaoli said, in part thanks to MLS leading the way.

MLS started allowing sponsors on the front of its jerseys as early as 2007, according to EVP and CRO Carter Ladd. It helps drive revenue, he said, and is a largely accepted practice in the global soccer community. MLS added a sleeve-patch option in 2020.

For other leagues, jersey partners aren’t as ingrained in their culture. Noah Garden, CRO of MLB, told Marketing Brew the league had been discussing jersey sponsorships “for a long time,” but that its leadership wanted to “take time to be methodical in our approach” so as to do right by its teams, partners, and fans.

Playing defense

Fan blowback isn’t an unreasonable concern: When the Boston Red Sox announced MassMutual as its first jersey sponsor last year, one local writer called the players “human billboards” and described these types of deals as a “cheapening of the game.” When the New York Yankees rolled out jerseys with a Starr Insurance patch on the sleeve in July, one X user had this to say:

Several sports marketing execs told us that this kind of backlash is likely confined to a passionate minority online. Still, teams selling jersey sponsorships should try to find partners that match their culture in some way.

Jon Goynshor, SVP and global head of partnerships at VMLY&R Commerce, pointed to the patch deal between security company ADT and the Miami Marlins, which his company worked on, as an example: The brand is headquartered near Miami, giving it an “authentic connection” to the city and its fanbase, he said.

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“The more you find authentic partners, the more the fans are going to…get behind that,” Goynshor said. “Versus, maybe there are some instances where it just looks like a money grab.”

The “hard sell”

Even when teams can find potential sponsors that are a good fit, there’s no guarantee those brands want to partner up—or can even afford to. The Yankees’s deal with Starr Insurance, which runs through 2031, is reportedly worth more than $20 million a year. It’s also about as much as Citi pays annually for the naming rights to the Mets stadium.

“It’s a hard sell,” Jeff Ehrenkranz, COO at sports marketing agency Allied Sports, which has done work selling jersey patches for MLS, told us. Later, he added that “there just aren’t that many brands that have that kind of money.”

DePaoli said some teams he works with “are still struggling” to find patch partners when seeking eight-figure deals. In the MLB, about half the clubs have locked in jersey sponsorships, Garden said.

As part of the deal, these sponsorships “almost always” come with other inventory, like seats and suites at games for employees and clients, or digital signage within a stadium or arena, according to Jason Miller, SVP and head of the properties division at Excel Sports Management, which he said has worked on 20% of the jersey deals in the NBA, plus some in the NHL and MLB.

Measure up

That’s the case for MassMutual. The 10-year deal, reportedly worth $170 million, also includes a “dominant presence in the park,” a suite and premium seats that execs and salespeople can use to woo clients, first-party data from the team’s fan database, and work with the Red Sox Foundation, which MassMutual already had a relationship with, Jennifer Halloran, the insurance company’s CMO and head of brand and marketing, told us.

“It was always more than the jersey-patch deal for us,” Halloran said. “We knew that we wanted to build a really big partnership with them. In honesty, what we built with them was the equivalent basically of a naming-rights relationship, although no one would ever rename Fenway Park.”

Also, like with stadium-naming deals, brand awareness is typically a major goal for jersey sponsors. As brands continue to spend millions on these partnerships, they’re honing the ways they measure those investments.

One common method is tracking changes in awareness among fans of the sponsored team compared to nonfans. Halloran said MassMutual made sure to survey Red Sox and MLB fans before the sponsorship started in order to establish a baseline. Other brands might look at the equivalent media value, according to DePaoli, calculating how much it might cost to reach game viewers with traditional ads versus exposure to the patch to justify their spend.

Amid the rise of jersey sponsorships, Excel Sports Management came up with a revenue impact model earlier this year meant to help buyers and sellers of sports partnerships understand how marketing efforts like this can impact revenue growth. It works by analyzing conversation and sentiment around the partnership and brand in digital media outlets and on social, VP of Business Insights and Analytics Adam Grossman said. Excel has already used the beta version for clients including the Boston Bruins and the Los Angeles Angels.

Thus far, jersey sponsorships do seem to be increasing brand awareness. Halloran said MassMutual’s is “definitely up,” and Rakuten’s jersey deal with the Golden State Warriors also led to an uptick.

“It’s a very valuable asset,” Garden said. “It’s every bit as important as a naming-rights sponsor.”

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