Athletes have been paid to sport logos on their uniforms and play in arenas saturated with commercialism for years, but now they are turning their backs on advertising — literally.
Body billboards are the latest trend in sports advertising. Boxers, the athletes who reveal the most skin, have been the first to take the plunge — some 25 have been paid $5,000 to $100,000 since last summer to have "GoldenPalace.com" tattooed in Henna on their backs.
The human billboards jumped into prominence when several stars, including Danny Bonaduce, Tonya Harding and Todd Bridges, wore the casino's mark on Fox's Celebrity Boxing. Former Partridge Family child actor Bonaduce earned $10,000 hiring his back out as a billboard, Entertainment Weekly reported.
GoldenPalace.com, an online casino, conjured up the body billboard idea last summer, when boxer Bernard Hopkins' agent approached them about advertising their name on his shorts. The company said, partly joking, "We're only interested if he'll tattoo our name across his back," Jeff Bernstein, spokesperson for GoldenPalace.com, said. And Bernard bit.
Phil Mushnick, TV sports columnist for the New York Post, deemed the body ads "the next logical step in a world gone crazy." Needless to say, he isn't a fan of the ads, which he said tend to run off the boxers' bodies once they start to sweat.
"Half of the ads should be put on the back backwards so when the boxer gets knocked out and hits the canvas, it reads the right way on the canvas," Mushnick proposed.
Boxing is of particular interest for those seeking skin to brand because the majority of the matches are broadcast on pay-per-view, so buying commercial airtime isn't an option. And with the human ads, the company gets exposure for the entire fight, not just during the 30-second segments in between the action.
While GoldenPalace.com has started with boxing, Bernstein said the company hopes to get into other sports and entertainment events, but won't reveal which players might sell their hides to turn a profit.
The Associated Press revealed last month that an unnamed candy company had approached the NBA's Rasheed Wallace in the hopes that he'd wear a temporary ad on his arm. The Portland player rejected the offer, but opened the debate about what sports figures can and can't advertise on their bodies.
And there has already been a backlash to the body branding. The Nevada Athletic Commission, fearing a NASCAR-like look for their competitions, banned the ads in January. But GoldenPalace.com went to court and obtained a temporary restraining order that allowed boxer Bones Adams to wear the tattoo ad in a Feb. 23 fight.
The latest court order issued in early March extends the original order and will become permanent unless the Nevada commission appeals again.
Some in the sports world may oppose the ads but the athletes themselves aren't so quick to judge, said Bernstein.
"Athletes are excited about any opportunity to get more revenue for themselves," he said. "The life cycle of their career is short, and they want to make as much as possible while they can."
Mushnick speculated that the length of the athlete's life cycle isn't so much a factor as the frivolous ways in which they lead it. "If money can change hands it's got a future," he said.
GoldenPalace.com claims the future for body billboards is bright. Mushnick, however, isn't shy about his resentment for the overabundance of advertising and greed in sports today.
"You can't look at a telecast without seeing ads covering the uniforms, the backgrounds, the screen, the virtual broadcastings. All of this already exists, so [the body billboard] is just the next step," he said.
"It's grown more and more offensive ... I'm surprised the body ads aren't down the boxer's front too, or down his leg or on a band aid to cover up a cut near his eye that says 'Pillsbury' with a 1-800 number and a Web address on it."