There are moments I dread as a parent, all of which involve having to explain stuff. It could be a billboard for a horror movie, an overheard comment in a store about a three-way or just a very basic question about why the sky is blue, which has something to do with reflecting the ocean, or vice versa or maybe not at all. I can never prepare for these questions. When my son Laszlo was 3–which means he had spent more than three years with his body–I was giving him a bath when he yelled with complete astonishment, “There’s a hole in my butt!”
So when Laszlo slipped on his spring-season American Youth Soccer Organization jersey and asked about the huge Fox Sports 1 logo on the right side, I wondered how I was going to explain that capitalism had turned him into a 5-year-old human billboard. But I got only to the word sponsorship when he started to smile. “I usually hear them talk about it after the car races,” he said excitedly, remembering plot points from the movie Cars. “It feels good. It’s just kind of encouraging me more. I feel like I’ll still be sponsored if I run more, dribble the ball more, score more goals.” Although he completely understands the word sponsored he has no idea what more means.
Even though this would seem to be the first time a corporation has ever sponsored an entire children’s sports league, most of the kids and parents on Laszlo’s team were unbothered. The only complaint I heard was from Charlie’s mom, Sara Ring. I expected, since we live in bright blue-stated California, that she was going to go off about corporations exploiting our children. But I massively underestimated the liberalism of Los Angeles. What Sara objected to was that Rupert Murdoch was involved. “We at least need another patch to be ‘fair and balanced.’ Like Planned Parenthood or PETA or MoveOn.org,” she suggested. “If Fox has to be on the front of Charlie’s jersey, then at the very least on the back I need to see, like, a really sharp tweet from Lena Dunham.”
I wasn’t as sensitive about the politics, but I did think that scoring more sponsors was a great idea. So I called Fox Sports 1 to find out what Laszlo’s contractual obligations are as a sponsored player. My first question was about whether there was a morality clause. “That’s not something that comes into youth sports as it does with professional sports,” said Chris Hannan, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of communications and integrations, in what I think was a really shortsighted decision. The purpose of giving anything to kids is to attach morality clauses, including dessert, Christmas presents and, especially, television.
Once I showed Laszlo the Fox Sports 1 website, he was even more excited, since it shows both soccer and car racing. But he wasn’t so committed to Fox Sports 1 that he was unwilling to consider taking on additional sponsors. He figured Fox Sports 1 should pay $2 per kid–which isn’t far from its five-year, multimillion-dollar deal for the 500,000 AYSO players across the country–but would entertain other prices from different organizations. “If there was a toy-store patch, I’d do it for free. Or even a sticker store,” Laszlo said. I asked if there was any company he wouldn’t allow on his shirt. “The Frozen company,” he said, referring to the film, which he passionately hates for invading his life with songs and princess games, and will not acknowledge was made by the same company that released Cars.
I called Lynn Berling-Manuel, AYSO’s chief marketing officer and the genius behind the sponsorship deal, which mostly amounted to the fact that the Fox Sports vice president coached both his daughters on AYSO teams. First, I wanted to know if there were a lot more jersey patches coming that would make Laszlo look like a race car. “No. NASCAR has done something no company or organization wants to do. I’m surprised they get away with it,” she said. This was going to be hard to break to Laszlo.
She said there was, however, a space on the sleeve for a local sponsor. She seemed to suggest a small company that’s part of the community, like Chico’s Bail Bonds, but here in L.A. that could also mean Amgen or DirecTV. So I pursued an individual deal for Laszlo through sports agent Dan Levy, who represents soccer stars Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach. I was very honest with him about the opportunity he was getting. No, I explained, Laszlo wasn’t the highest-scoring player in the under-6 league. But that’s not the point of youth soccer, and it’s certainly not the point of corporate sponsorships. Laszlo, by far, gets the most media coverage in the league, albeit all of it in TIME magazine. Levy said that while AYSO controlled the rights to the jersey, Laszlo “might have a shot at a footwear deal, but he would have to build a major presence on social media.” So I urge you to follow him at @LaszloSoccerStar on Twitter. Hopefully, he’ll get popular enough to impress Nike or Reebok. Or at least get some free stickers that affix to his cleats.
This appears in the April 06, 2015 issue of TIME.