Hockey jerseys or sandwich boards: Are ads on NHL jerseys inevitable?

Adam Proteau
Hockey Jersey

Picture it: the iconic Montreal Canadiens jersey. Now picture an Apple logo underneath it. Now picture McDonald’s arches on one side of it and a bank logo on the other. I probably should have warned you to have a barf bag nearby before you read that, shouldn’t I? My apologies.

The specter of advertising on NHL jerseys is going to grow in the days to come. It’s already on the minds and tongues of executives in the NBA, including new commissioner Adam Silver. He said in February that sponsor symbols and logos on uniforms is but a fait accompli. “I believe it ultimately will happen in the NBA,” Silver said. “It makes good business sense.”

If you believe the NHL will follow Silver’s lead and alter the optics of hockey jerseys, you’re not alone. Uniform advertising has been discussed unofficially in hockey circles for some time. And my view on it has changed.

As I wrote in THN many years back, I thought it was worth exploring if the monies collected from the additional revenue stream went toward making NHL tickets more affordable. I know, I know, the folly of youth. Time has taught me additional revenue streams don’t have any effect on ticket prices. And in my defense, I didn’t envision every corner of the hockey-going experience being overwhelmed by advertising: whether it’s rink board ads, naming rights for arenas, virtual ads on the glass around the rink, online banners or pop-up ads, the NHL already has done more than enough to monetize its playing surface.

Wound deep within the fabric of hockey fandom is the sense of identity. People wear their jerseys as a representation of who they are and many wouldn’t be happy to have a corporation arbitrarily stamped upon their person. Nobody doubts uniform advertising would add to the NHL’s coffers (and be split with its players), but you have to wonder if and when fans finally revolt and say enough is enough and that this ceaseless bombardment of the eyeballs has gone too far.

For me, seeing the beautiful Maple Leaf go from being on a solid blue or white uniform to one pockmarked with toll-free phone lines for personal injury lawyers and life insurance brands would be going too far. So would seeing the Blackhawks’ brilliant jersey drown amidst a sea of carmaker logos and energy drink slogans. It’s one of the things that separates hockey on this continent from European leagues where jersey ads are common. And I don’t think anyone can say with certainty the NHL won’t pay a price if they change that arrangement.

By this, I’m not suggesting fans will stop showing up to games when ads appear on jerseys. If two lockouts didn’t anger them enough to boycott the product, different-looking uniforms won’t be the camel-paralyzing straw. But what if consumers stopped buying replica jerseys in such large numbers? And what if, in the age of social media and cottage industries, someone decided to conceal the jersey ads by stitching colored patches over them or spray-painting the logos away? If fans chose to do so, what could the NHL do about it? Sue them for not wearing the jersey the way they wanted?

The saturation point for advertising disappeared from the NHL’s rear horizon long ago. It’s possible for a brand to be debased and damaged by a corporate overreach. Although the NBA’s commissioner thinks it makes good business sense to advertise on jerseys, don’t forget some corporate executive thought New Coke made good business sense.

The NHL would be wise to remember that just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

This feature originally appeared in the March 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.