While already sponsored in the form of a manufacturer's logo, it won't be long before advertisements are placed somewhere many fans probably won’t like: NHL jerseys.
Credited in recent years for the expansion of the business side of hockey, NHL Chief Operating Officer John Collins told Ian Thomas of SportsBusinessDaily.com, in an interview at the NeuLion Sports Media & Technology Conference, that jersey sponsorships are “coming and happening.” That implies the league is looking to move beyond the manufacturer’s branding in terms of advertising on jerseys.
This will undoubtedly upset fans who think that team uniforms should be sacred. They are right in a sense: Hockey would be better if crass commercialism had less sway over the game. The problem is that this particular train hasn’t just left the station; it’s well out of sight over the horizon.
Take third jerseys, for example. According to NHLUniforms.com, 18 of the NHL’s 30 teams currently have a third jersey that they wear occasionally during the season. If we expand the scope to the past four seasons, only three clubs (Chicago, Montreal and New Jersey) have managed to avoid adding a third jersey to their rotation. The quality of the jerseys themselves ranges wildly, from excellent all the way down to that ungodly disaster the Buffalo Sabres wear.
And that’s to say nothing of the teams that have overhauled their primary uniforms altogether, a list that (not including the relocated Atlanta Thrashers) encompasses more than a third of the league. Were jerseys really so ugly back in 2010-11 that one in three NHL teams needed to make changes?
Then there are special edition jerseys. On Wednesday, the Chicago Blackhawks revealed their 2015 NHL Winter Classic (sponsored by Bridgestone, don’t forget) jerseys, while the Washington Capitals unveiled theirs earlier in the year.
A special side benefit that comes with an outdoor game is the chance to market a special edition jersey. Last year, both the Red Wings and Maple Leafs played in special jerseys at the NHL Winter Classic. Vancouver and Ottawa, playing in the Canadian Heritage Classic, did the same thing.
So did the four teams that played in the NHL Stadium Series. Four outdoor games in 2013-14 required eight special outdoor game jerseys, all of which were then sold by the league.
Jerseys aren’t sacred in the NHL, and they haven’t been for a long time. Between third jerseys, perpetual redesigns, special editions of jerseys for special games and the all-pink or all-black variants that aren’t worn by teams but are sold to fans, it should be abundantly clear that the league prioritizes making money over serving the game—as it does in virtually every other part of the game.
Advertisements on jerseys are a logical extension of what the league is already doing. The constraint on how far the NHL goes isn’t anything as abstract as respect for the history of the sport; it’s going to come down to dollars and cents. Will the NHL make more money from selling ad space on jerseys than they lose from diminished sales of merchandise and general fan disgruntlement?
The sweet spot for the league is probably subtle advertisements. Take the Montreal Canadiens’ jersey as an example. Despite the wonderful sense of history associated with the franchise, people don’t complain about the NHL crest at the throat of the jersey or the white Reebok logo on the back. If the league was to push the Reebok logo to one side and add an all-white McDonald’s logo (as an example) beside it, how much would people really notice?
What about a team with a less storied past? If the Nashville Predators (again, just for example) were to add a crest on one shoulder of their jersey with a Predators-coloured company logo, would there be much outcry?
Fans won't welcome or encourage advertisements on uniforms, but it seems inevitable. If there is one lesson that NHL fans should have learned over the last decade or two of work stoppages, teams threatening relocation to get more favourable arena deals and rule changes like the shootout, it’s that the business side of the game always takes priority over the hockey side of the game.
Ads on jerseys is the next step of that unfortunate reality.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.