With few to no fans allowed in NHL buildings in the coming season, revenues are expected to take a tumble. It’s no wonder that teams are turning to another source of revenue: advertising.
Three teams so far have announced a sponsorship deal to put a corporate logo on their helmet: the Nashville Predators, Washington Capitals, and New Jersey Devils. Sources suggest it’s likely all 31 NHL teams will seek a helmet sponsorship for the coming season. The Canucks are planning to have ads on their helmets and will likely confirm a sponsorship soon.
The NHL reportedly expects to raise $15 million selling ads on helmets, which doesn’t seem like much, but the league is looking for anything to help offset lost revenue.
NHL exec: “[Ads on helmets] is not about greed. It's about saving jobs and people’s homes. Do you know how much money we are going to lose without customers in arenas? We are hemorrhaging money and we need to find any possible option for keeping our people employed."— Rick Westhead (@rwesthead) December 21, 2020
For the Canucks, a partnership with Rogers, which already sponsors the Canucks' arena and broadcasts their games, seems inevitable, but with other Canadian teams seeking $1 million for helmet ads, it's possible that another company steps up to the plate.
Is this the first step down a slippery slope towards advertising on jerseys or just a financially prudent measure in an unprecedented situation? Or is it both?
No sport treats their jerseys with more veneration than hockey. For what is just a practical piece of athletic wear, it’s treated as nearly sacred by the adherents of the religion of hockey. Heck, one of the most iconic pieces of Canadian literature is The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier, which everyone in Canada reads at school, firmly establishing the importance of a jersey in young minds.
In fact, a great many of you reading this right now are offended that I even used the word “jersey” to refer to a hockey sweater in the preceding paragraph.
Hockey fans take jerseys seriously and that’s definitely true for Canucks fans, who have a multitude of jerseys to choose from throughout their favourite team’s history. Everyone has their favourite and, more importantly, their least favourite. But even the worst Canucks jersey is still a Canucks jersey and is treated with respect. Unless it’s a Mark Messier jersey.
That’s why the possibility of advertising encroaching on an NHL jersey is treated with such disdain. Anyone who has watched European hockey has seen how absurd advertising can get on jerseys, with some teams looking like Nascar drivers the way they’re plastered head to toe in brands and corporate logos.
Still, advertising on NHL jerseys seems inevitable. Fans got used to ads on rink boards and on the ice. Small ads on NBA jerseys have largely been accepted. Soccer has had advertising forever and fans don’t hesitate to buy soccer jerseys that feature a corporate logo ten times the size of the team’s crest.
The truth is, a hockey game is already chockful of advertising, to the point of parody. Every moment has a logo slapped on it, from a replay to a penalty to the biggest hit of the game.
Ads on helmets will ruin the game. They’ll be inescapable. Every Budget Brake and Muffler Key Part of The Game, every Subway Fresh Take, every time someone wins a men’s Bulova watch on Safeway/Save-On Foods Score And Win, you’ll just be thinking about those damn ads— 🎄frankincenso aquilini 🎁 (@failsonmcdonald) December 22, 2020
The financial benefit of putting even just one ad on a jersey is hard to ignore. The NHL is turning down millions and millions of dollars in ad revenue by keeping ads off jerseys. Every time the possibility has come up, however, the NHL has said it's not an option.
“The history, tradition and respect that goes with NHL sweaters is something we and Adidas are very respectful of. We like our jerseys a lot and we think our fans do as well,” said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman back in 2015. “We certainly won’t be the first [to allow advertising]. You’d have to drag me kicking and screaming. It would take a lot, a lot, a lot of money.”
Or perhaps it would take a global pandemic to open the door.
An ad on a helmet is fairly minor, of course. Only the players wear the helmets, not the fans, unlike a jersey. The thing about a fan wearing a jersey, however, is that it’s already full of advertising.
A sports logo is itself a corporate logo. In essence, when a fan wears the jersey of their favourite team, they’re providing free advertising for that team. Not even free — they paid for the privilege of wearing the logo.
It can be argued that’s different. A team logo isn’t the same as a typical company logo. Even allowing that argument, that’s not even the only logo on the jersey.
Every NHL jersey also features some free advertising for the NHL itself in a crest on the collar, as well as the Adidas logo on the back. Every time a fan wears a jersey, they’re not just repping their favourite team and maybe their favourite player if it has a name and number, but the company that made the jersey as well.
With that in mind, would it really be so bad to add another small advertising patch to a jersey that already features an Adidas logo?
In any case, that’s an argument that can be kicked down the road for now. Ads are coming to helmets next season whether you like it or not.