An Inside Look at How Sports Teams Sell Ad Patches
An industry insider gives us an exclusive peek behind the curtain.
By far the biggest storyline in the uni-verse over the past several years is the spread of advertising patches in the Big Four pro leagues. The NBA began the practice in 2017, followed by the NHL (helmet ads in 2021, jersey ads in 2022) and then MLB (sleeve ads in 2023).
But while ad patches are high-profile uni elements, the machinations behind them are largely hidden from public view. For example, how exactly do these uniform ads get sold? Like, do the teams just announce, “We’re open for business!” and wait for the phone to ring? And with some teams and leagues ending up with egg on their face after their advertisers turned out to be disreputable, it seems reasonable to ask how much vetting, if any, is part of the ad sale process.
As it happens, teams rarely handle these types of deals themselves. Instead, there’s a group of companies that specialize in big-ticket ad and sponsorship sales, and teams usually hire one of those firms to find a uni advertiser for them.
I recently heard from a Uni Watch reader who happens to work for one of those firms. He agreed to answer my questions about how uni ads are sold as long as I didn’t identify him or his company. (That meant we couldn’t talk about any specific ad deals he worked on, obviously.)
Our conversation turned out to be really, really interesting. I learned a lot, and I think you will too. Here’s a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of our recent Zoom call.
Uni Watch: Tell me a little bit about the kind of company you work for.
Anonymous: We’re a sports marketing agency. There are many agencies like us that do similar things, where teams and leagues and governing bodies, and other entities that sell sponsorship in sports, hire us to do that for them. And sometimes it’s on a long-term basis; other times, it’s on a project-by-project basis. And we have salespeople who are actively out there talking to brands to try to sell them various things, and the brands buy those various things.
UW: Are you one of those salespeople?
Anonymous: No. I work on the creative side. We have a bunch of creative deliveries that we do, based on what we sell. So I manage a creative services team of about 20 people. We have graphic designers, we have marketers.
UW: So you’re creating pitch decks and things like that?
Anonymous: That’s a part of it. But we have people who are executing things after they’re sold. If you see one of those “Find the ball under the hat” things on the Jumbotron, my team creates those motion graphics.
UW: Let’s say I’m a pro sports team and I’m looking to sell space on my jersey. And I’m used to doing all kinds of corporate partnerships and ad deals. Why do I need to hire a company like yours to handle the sale of the ad patch, instead of just doing it myself?
Anonymous: Some teams do it themselves. But for the most part, it’s a pretty specialized sale. And to find brands that have enough money to spend on one asset is a very specific task. It’s a lot like real estate: You can sell your house by yourself if you want, but you’re probably better off hiring a real estate agent.
Also, when a team has a staff of sponsorship salespeople who are charged with hitting a number…
UW: Meaning they have a target amount of revenue that they have to bring in?
Anonymous: Right. They need to concentrate on that. If you had those same people working on selling a uniform patch, they wouldn’t be able to concentrate on hitting their number with all the other sponsorships they’re selling. And if they concentrate on those other sponsorships, they won’t have enough time to devote to the patch. The patch is a pretty large-ticket item that takes some concerted effort to sell. So they hire us, or another agency like us, to do that.
UW: How many agencies are there in this category?
Anonymous: I would say there’s probably like 12 companies that play in this larger-scale sponsorship sales space. And then of those 12, there’s probably like five or six that specialize on targeting patch deals.
UW: If I’m a team that’s looking to hire a company like yours, how do you get me to work with your company, instead of one of the other agencies?