ajor League Soccer (MLS) will become the first major American sports league to sell jersey sponsorship and stadium naming rights to companies in the sports betting and spirits industries, under new changes to its commercial sponsorship guidelines unveiled on Wednesday and effective immediately for its 24 clubs.
While MLS had previously allowed such sponsorship for beer and wine companies, recent developments, including last year's U.S. Supreme Court decision that allowed states to legalize sports gambling, paved the way for the league to expand its rules regarding sponsorship.
In addition to allowing such sponsorships on the front of jerseys, MLS will begin selling sponsorships on the sleeves of its team's jerseys starting next season. Teams can also grant rights to sports betting companies to advertise within stadiums, during broadcasts, as well as have in-stadium betting, though such rights are subject to state law.
Sports betting sponsors are also allowed to strike digital advertising agreements with clubs; use clubs’ marks and logos in their advertising; deploy “call-to-action” advertising encouraging legal-age fans to bet on MLS games. Clubs are also now permitted to create “ancillary programming around sports betting,” such as shows that discuss betting odds, and include league footage in those programs, according to Fortune.
The league’s clubs will be able to establish in-stadium sports betting facilities, in connection with licensed gambling operators, in jurisdictions that permit such establishments. In Washington, D.C.—where MLS club D.C. United recently opened its brand new Audi Field—Ted Leonsis, who owns the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals, plans to open such a facility within Capital One Arena, the downtown venue shared by both of his teams.
“Right now, we want to take advantage of the widespread legalization of sports betting in the U.S.,” Ladd said, adding that the league will “pursue best practices to protect the integrity of the game.”
One league guideline indicates that all advertising for sports betting or spirits must be directed to an age-appropriate audience, ESPN reports. The league will prohibit youth-sized replica jerseys from bearing such sponsors, and will bar them from appearing on the uniforms worn by clubs’ academy and youth players. The aim of the changes, which were approved at the MLS Board of Governors meeting earlier this month, is to increase fan engagement as well as revenue.
"The legalization of sports betting, and just the changing landscape of social mores and how the line between spirits, beer and wine is starting to dissolve, we felt that now was an appropriate time to make some adjustments," said Carter Ladd, the MLS VP of Business Development.
The move does come with some restrictions. Ladd added that MLS won't allow for sports betting companies to "access athletes," meaning there wouldn't be billboards with the athletes in conjunction with a sports betting sponsor, or run television ads featuring a player and a sports betting company. "It would have to be more of an overarching integration with the club," he said.
The sight of sports betting companies on the front of jerseys has long been a staple of the sport in Europe. Ladd added that this connection overseas paved the way for MLS to adopt the change.
"Having sports betting companies on the front of jerseys is part of the fabric of the game internationally," said Ladd. "We want to be at the forefront of it here within North America and touch on the international relevancy of our sport."
With the revised sponsorship rules taking effect immediately, MLS expects clubs to start announcing new sports betting and liquor sponsorships before the end of this year.