With news last week that the Columbus Crew had secured a jersey sponsorship deal, the number of MLS teams that appear set to enter the 2012 regular season without advertising displayed across their players’ chests dropped to four. Included in that dubious quartet that counts Sporting Kansas City, FC Dallas, and the Colorado Rapids as members — though some might find the clean jersey look inviting — is the formerly Amway sponsored San Jose Earthquakes.
Around the same time in January that the Chicago Fire was also decking their jerseys with a big-money corporate partner, the Earthquakes were quietly distancing themselves from the Amway name that had been their presenting sponsor over the last three years. Brought aboard to much publicity at the tail end of the 2008 season, Amway was never well received by Earthquakes supporters, and the sponsorship deal was scaled back following each of the past threes seasons. As of December 31st of 2011, the partnership between the Quakes and the most visible multi-level marketing firm to set root in the United States was over.
Leaked photos of the 2012 San Jose Earthquakes jerseys back in January became the primary visible indication that the sponsorship deal was over, and the largely blank look of the jerseys suggested that the organization might still find a partner to plaster across their chests. When the official jerseys were unveiled earlier this month, they still featured a clean black canvas — not even the iconic "San Jose" script from the 2008 jerseys was included in the new offerings. Numerous supporters have chimed in with what they feel would be great companies for the Earthquakes to affiliate with, while others have made it clear which advertisers would not be welcome. Given that the franchise is undergoing a transformation on and off the field — a long overdue new stadium, a renewed emphasis to penetrate a stingy Bay Area media market, a ever increasingly competitive collection of Western Conference opponents that threatens to leave them behind in the standings — it is most likely that possible sponsors are waiting to see in which direction the club’s fortunes flow before delivering up a multi-million dollar annual payment of sponsorship cash.
With Columbus and Chicago escaping the ranks of the unsponsored kits, San Jose as been left behind with the three other unaffiliated clubs. Notable, but not surprising given the local marketing hills they all have to climb, all four teams are in MLS originals that started with the league in the inaugural 1996 season. With all the incurred baggage that came with trailblazing the sports landscape during those early tumultuous years of America’s newest professional soccer league, the oldest franchises in MLS experienced all the highs and lows of trying to establish the legitimacy of the sport in their local communities. Numerous missteps along the way required many of these teams to focus as much on marketing damage control as opposed to building recognizable and accepted brands.
The biggest sponsorship deals in MLS have for the most part gone to the latest batch of expansion teams, which have benefited from a much more hospitable American sports community to professional soccer and a blueprint for success that has been built on the failures of MLS club endeavors of the past. Only the San Jose Earthquakes of the four remaining sponsor-less teams even has a history of jersey sponsorship. For FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City, two sides that have undergone a complete rebranding in the years following their 1996 debuts, they still have been unable to overcome the barrier to local jersey sponsorship. At least in Kansas City, that may yet prove to be untrue, but even a brand new stadium and a regular season Eastern Conference title have not landed them a lucrative deal.
The new MLS has certainly favored the new MLS franchises, but the opportunity is ripe for a rising league to elevate all clubs. Acceptance of the presence of a jersey sponsor from general sports fans in the United States is increasing, especially with the visibility other teams from around the world of international soccer increase their exposure in this country. Soon, the glaring omission of a jersey advertisement might signal to observers that the offending club is not up to par with the other clubs in the league in terms of their place in the soccer marketing hierarchy. The age of acceptance and legitimacy for these once obtrusive advertisements has arrived; the sponsor-less stragglers need to catch up or be relegated to second-class status.