As soon as it was announced that MLB teams would be allowed to include advertisements on their uniforms, a race seemingly began to see who would land the most dubious sponsor. While results are still coming in, the Houston Astros are leading the pack after signing a deal with Occidental Petroleum. Yes, the reigning world champions, not exactly popular to start with, will be walking billboards for a fossil fuel company as the climate crisis rages.
Officially, the league prefers if you call this type of deal a “patch sponsorship,” which sounds folksy and informal. That term feels more than a little euphemistic, so maybe it’s more helpful to take the cue of journalist Paul Lukas, who believes the simpler term “uniform ads” is more to the point.
Because ads are what they are. To be a “patch sponsor,” a company simply hands a team a whole bunch of money – in this case, the exact terms of the Astros’ deal with Oxy have not been disclosed – and in return the teams wear uniforms with corporate logos. For the Astros players, this means wearing a red, white and blue Oxy logo for nearly every game of the year. The only exception will be two games where the logo will be gold instead to match the coloring of the 2022 World Series champions’ uniforms.
The Oxy logo will just be one of the corporate brands that baseball fans will have to adjust to in the upcoming season, the first in which MLB has allowed such promotions. It’s such a new process that not every franchise has found an official partner yet. Besides the Astros, the Los Angeles Angels have signed up with Foundation Building Materials, the Arizona Diamondbacks are with Avnet, the Boston Red Sox have a deal with MassMutual, the San Diego Padres are aligned with Motorola and the Cincinnati Reds have paired with Kroger.
Those agreements, however, are unlikely to be as controversial as the Astros’ decision to go all-in with Houston-based Occidental Petroleum. It would be relatively easy for the Reds to put a positive spin on their deal. After all, it’s significantly more difficult to build a case that a grocery chain represents an existential threat to our fragile ecosystem.
Maybe the mere presence of the patches themselves will end up being more offensive to baseball fans than whatever corporate entity they happen to represent. In any given situation, it’s a net-negative when advertisements start popping up where they didn’t exist before. And keep in mind that these ads will appear in baseball, a sport which is particularly obsessed with nostalgia for a supposedly more innocent past, when athletes played for the love of the game rather than big money.
In that context, the rise of uniform advertisements could end up being more disruptive than the league has calculated. Aesthetics are uniquely important in baseball, and any change that makes the game “feel” different can be perceived as a threat.
This is why MLB only convinced the National League to adopt the designated hitter last year, nearly 50 years after the American League introduced the rule. If MLB commissioner Rob Manfred expects fans to quietly adjust to the new normal, he has miscalculated their sport’s audience, and not for the first time.
Maybe Manfred is hoping that the new advertisements will be overshadowed by the various other rule changes the league will adopt this season, including the establishment of a pitch-clock and the elimination of many defensive shifts.
As controversial as these new rules will inevitably be, the league will argue that they could change the sport for the better, making games shorter and more exciting. What is the upside of these uniform ads? It won’t exist for the fans: the best-case scenario is that we get used to them quickly enough that we stop noticing them.
No, we are going to see more and more teams hook with so-called “patch sponsors” in upcoming years for the simple reason that it’s pretty much free money. It’s the same principle that underlies how modern-day stadiums are named: companies are willing to pay, owners are willing to cash the checks and the rest of us just have to live with the results.
When looked at from that perspective, the Astros’ deal with Oxy probably won’t be the most infamous deal in franchise history. After all this is the team, once known as the Houston Colt .45s, that played at Enron Field before the company’s downfall necessitated the stadium to be reborn as Minute Maid Park. Whatever the fallout of these new patches, it’s hard to imagine it being quite as dramatic as that episode.
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