BOSTON – Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck was expecting more of a fight when he and his partners approached franchise patriarch Red Auerbach about having cheerleaders perform at games.
The Celtics were the lone NBA holdout without a dance squad in 2006, and the longtime coach and general manager was famously crotchety about anything that took attention away from the game itself. But instead of arguing, Grousbeck said, Auerbach listened to the sponsorship possibilities and said, “You’ve got to pay the bills.”
The NBA’s most decorated franchise got a little more decorated on Wednesday when the Celtics announced a deal to put a General Electric advertisement on the team’s uniform. One of sports’ most tradition-laden institutions, the 17-time NBA champions will begin wearing the GE logo next season on a primary uniform that has remained relatively constant since the league formed in 1946.
“At the Celtics, we think about Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and Larry Bird,” Grousbeck said. “And now Thomas Edison.”
While racecars are plastered with ads and soccer teams wear sponsors’ brands where Americans would expect the team name to be, the NBA is dipping its toe into uniform advertising with a pilot program that allows a single 2 1/2-by-2 1/2 inch patch on teams’ jerseys, starting next season.
The first of the big four American sports leagues to allow ads on jerseys, the NBA has said it expects the deals from all 30 teams could bring in at least $100 million annually. The Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings already have jersey deals with StubHub and Blue Diamond almonds.
“That’s the next thing,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens, who downplayed the break with tradition by noting that the league that has already moved toward alternative uniforms for Christmas Day games and other special events. “I mean, we wore gray with sleeves yesterday.”
Celtics officials declined to specify terms of the deal. But they said they did not shop around after deciding there was a good fit between two organizations that both have long traditions and also a willingness to innovate.
The company, which traces its roots to Thomas Edison’s startup in 1878, moved its headquarters from Connecticut to Boston last summer.
“We did not take lightly to putting a logo other than the Celtics logo on our uniform,” team president Rich Gotham said.
Although the jersey patches are the most visible part of the deal, it also allows the Celtics to take advantage of GE’s medical, lighting and electrical expertise while planning their new practice facility, which is scheduled to open in the Brighton Landing neighborhood of Boston in 2018. The agreement also makes GE the exclusive data analytics partner of the team.
“We will take 100 percent of the credit if the Celtics win the championship,” GE chief financial officer Jeff Bornstein said. “It will all be because of data analytics.”
Although GE’s logo is predominantly blue, the company agreed to patches that are green and white to blend better with the traditional Celtics colors. (The logo will be a green, stylized “GE” on a white background on the road jerseys and white letters on a green background at home, contrasting with the Celtics’ color scheme.)
GE chief marketing officer Linda Boff said it was not hard to adjust.
“The opportunity to do this with a storied franchise, with the winningest franchise in NBA history, is really humbling,” she said. “I think our brand looks really beautiful in green.”
AP freelancer Gethin Coolbaugh contributed to this story.
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