I know I am a little late on this topic, as it has been being discussed for a few weeks now, but I came across a blog post on Chris Smith’s excellent Icethetics website. The website is dedicated to the discussion of hockey logos and hockey jerseys new and old as well as other related topics. The post that piqued my interest was entitled “NHL Exec Declares Advertising is Coming to Sweaters” and featured remarks from hockey agent Allan Walsh and NHL COO John Collins regarding the NHL putting advertising on NHL jerseys.
I think you would be very hard pressed to find a fan of any sport that wants to see corporate takeover of their team’s jerseys. While I do understand that soccer fans have had to put up with jersey sponsorship for years, there is actually good reason for that. Soccer television broadcasts do not include commercials save for a few breaks during halftime (which lasts for about 15 minutes). As any hockey fan knows, commercial breaks are much more prevalent in hockey with maybe four or five per period. Not to mention the rampant advertising on the dasher boards, on the ice itself, in-arena signage, the naming rights to the actual arena, promotional advertising for events during the game (such as the old “PSE&G Power Play” at Devils games) and all of the other advertising that goes on during a professional hockey game, advertising on the players jerseys just seems like overkill. And it is.
Now, the first thing that comes to many people’s minds when you mention on-jersey ads are the European hockey leagues that plaster ads on every available space on the player’s uniform. From helmet to socks and pants, there are ad patches and stickers there. Think NASCAR on ice. But I am certain that should the NHL adopt this program, it would look more like what some NHL teams such as the Red Wings and Kings already do with their practice jersey and some minor pro leagues like the ECHL and AHL already do here in North America: it would encompass a small corporate logo patch on the upper chest. At first. The problem is that this is a slippery slope that we are dealing with. Once the owners see the amount of money they can make from a small patch, the patch will get bigger and bigger and appear in different places and the next thing you know, the NHL becomes NASCAR on ice, much like the European leagues. Soon enough, there are advertisements in the faceoff dots on the rink (something that has been done in Europe). Many who commented on the article at Icethetics (and Mr. Smith himself) felt that ads on jerseys will make a mockery of the tradition that the jerseys represent. In North America, we do not have a culture of using our team jerseys as billboards.
The NHL has stated in the past that it would not want to be the first of the four major professional sports leagues to put ads on their in-game jerseys. They would only do it once the NFL, MLB or the NBA did it first. Now, it seems that the NHL has changed that stance and will now be the trailblazers in this endeavor. I do not endorse ads-on-jerseys in any sport. Could you imagine ads on the uniform sleeve of the New York Yankees or the Green Bay Packers? Now imagine this happening in hockey, a sport that, much like baseball, relies on its history and tradition as part of its selling point. Why else do you think the NHL puts so much time in talking up the Original Six? Each year we are reminded that the Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy still competed for by professional athletes in North American sports. Could you imagine Bobby Orr scoring his Cup clinching goal in 1970 flying through the air with “Coca-Cola” plastered across his lower back? Why would the NHL throw all of that away for greed? Because we all know that ticket prices are not coming down and you are still going to be paying $10 for a beer at a game.
So while we know that this is all a cynical money grab by the NHL, we can only hope that the powers-that-be see this as presenting their league as bush league. And that is it in a nut shell. The NHL should represent the major league of professional hockey around the world. With all due respect to other international leagues, players there are fighting to get to the NHL just like players in the American Hockey League or other North American minor pro leagues. The NHL has had some problems drawing in the casual fan in the past; they do not need any more hindrances in that department.
So, while the NHL seems to think this is a foregone conclusion that ads will be on jerseys sooner rather than later, there is much to think about. I will not stop watching, I could not do that to the Devils. I will still love the team and the game. I just wish the NHL will reconsider. Lou Lamoriello has defended his decision to not update the Devils uniforms or give the team third jerseys by saying that playing in the jersey should mean something. It should be important to the player that he has finally made it to the National Hockey League and should represent more than just a piece of fabric. A jersey represents a city, a tradition, a sport and a legacy. Hopefully the NHL will eventually see this reality and resist the temptation. Maybe Lou will pull a power play and will keep the ads off the Devils jerseys by sticking to his ideals, keeping the Devils as the lone holdouts without sponsored jerseys. Maybe this is all a bad dream that will go away once we wake up. I hope this is the case, but somehow, I foresee a future where the NHL looks less like a North American sports league and more like a shopping mall.