Walking billboards: MLS teams whose jersey sponsors make fans think twice

Sometimes, kit sponsors just rub fans the wrong way.

Amid the many signs of Major League Soccer’s increasingly ruddy financial health, one of the most obvious sits right on the chests of the players themselves.

The league only opened up jersey-front real estate for outside advertising in 2006, after prioritizing the development of its own logos in its early years. But today every one of MLS’ 22 member clubs has a corporate partner’s logo splayed across their shirts, reaping financial windfalls in the general range of $3-5 million per year per team.

This is the most precious few inches of territory – both financially and spiritually – a soccer club has to offer advertisers. The unavoidable prominence of jersey sponsors links them inextricably to the team’s image, so clubs do their best to craft arrangements that enhance their own identity.

Portland Timbers fans snap up jerseys like $3 craft beers at happy hour, and generally seem to love being paired with Alaska Airlines – and vice versa. One of the carrier’s planes, the “Timbers Jet,” is bedecked with PTFC’s crest and colors. RCTID (“Rose City ‘Til I Die”) supporters wearing a jersey get priority boarding on all flights. And who can forget former coach John Spencer’s star turn in a 2011 commercial?

Columbus Crew SC fans are over the moon at present, as their team not only set aside last year's regrettable city flag-inspired kits to return to being "the yellow football team" of old – and with blue-collar Barbasol replaced by a lucrative new sponsorship deal with Acura.

Somewhat surprisingly, given that “Red Bull Out” was a mantra among some supporters not long ago, New York Red Bulls fans seem generally content with their team’s shirt – hell, their entire identity – being dominated by an Austrian-based energy drink. Then again, the highly caffeinated beverage has invested lavishly since it bought the MetroStars in 2006, from a respected youth academy to star players like Thierry Henry to Red Bull Arena, one of the true cathedrals of North American soccer.

But MLS is still a modestly-sized fish in the very big pond of modern sports business. And the organizations that are most eager to splash the cash for those kit sponsorships aren’t always the ones that fans are totally comfortable wearing – at exorbitant prices – on authentic merchandise.

This can add an extra wrinkle to your jersey-shopping process, which already factors in subjective evaluations of how the shirts are colored, designed, cut and how much they cost. So we’ve researched the conventional wisdom about the league’s various shirts, conducted some informal fan polling and stirred in a healthy dose of our own (admittedly irreverent) perspectives to determine the top 7 MLS jerseys you'd least want to wear outside the stadium.

New England Revolution

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The United States’ largest health insurance provider and No. 6 on the Fortune 500, United HealthCare stumbled into contentious political territory last year by pulling out of the Affordable Care Act’s (Obamacare) state exchanges. That antagonized some progressive Revs supporters, who feel few ties to the Minnesota-based company. It matters from an aesthetic standpoint, too: This year’s designs are cleanly designed with Yankee-Doodle colorblocking that should hold wide appeal in this country. But that “UHC” blares at onlookers far more loudly than the team crest could hope to muster.

D.C. United

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Kudos to D.C. for thinking outside the box on this year’s new white away kits, which sport distinctive red sleeves and a custom chest pattern. I can safely say they’re unlike anything else in MLS. BMX and motocross enthusiasts might find them quite familiar, however, and that may not be a good thing.

Leidos is an enormous yet relatively unrecognized government contractor that provides a huge range of military, security, technology and aerospace products to the Department of Defense and others. It employs a whopping 33,000 people, most of them in D.C. United’s home region. You’re not one of those bleeding-hearts who harbor reservations about the military-industrial complex, are you?

FC Dallas/LA Galaxy/Real Salt Lake

Honestly, I don’t know how these three stack up in comparison to one another; they’re all bright, clean designs. I’m not even entirely sure of what products their shirt sponsors are selling, though “Protandim” in particular sounds pretty questionable. What matters here is that all are “MLMs,” or multi-level marketers, better known as pyramid schemes and widely maligned as deceptive and exploitative by design. Just mentioning their names might make you sound like a door-to-door salesperson to your suspicious non-soccer friends. Are you ready to pay upwards of $150 for a glorified t-shirt with their logo on it yet?

Bimbo Bakeries USA – Philadelphia Union

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

In 1945 Mexican baker Lorenzo Servitje got the name for what would become a bread behemoth in 22 countries by combining the words “bingo” and “Bambi” to evoke childlike innocence. Servitje, who recently passed away (RIP) at 98, could never have predicted that its collision with an unrelated North American slang term would someday disgust legions of Philly soccer fans, especially women, even turning many off from buying any merch bearing their team’s logo.

Few shirt sponsors make their team’s fans chafe like the bright wordmark of Bimbo, the nation’s largest (and Pennsylvania-based!) bakery company, on the Union’s kit. It’s pronounced “Beembo,” but good luck explaining that one to the legions. Some legitimacy is conferred by their other shirt deals with illustrious clubs abroad like Chivas Guadalajara. But it’s hard to overcome a timeworn idiom like this one.

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