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The Pandemic Ushers in the NHL Ad-pocalypse

Thanks in part to the financial damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL’s advertisers have arrived at one of the final sponsorship frontiers, the uniform.

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Bratt with Ikea helmet ad
[Swedes get mad at me] Sorry, I’m sorry, I’m trying to remove it.
Original Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In a development long speculated but ultimately resisted up until this point, the NHL appears to be moving forward with a plan to include advertisements on part of team uniforms in the 2020-21 season. Specifically, the league looks set to add sponsor decals on the helmets of every NHL team when they return to the ice in January. Yes, in what is almost certainly an attempt to blunt the financial impact of the ongoing pandemic, the NHL will allow sponsors onto a portion of NHL uniforms during meaningful games for the first time. An understandable move, as the league is reportedly thought to be able to fetch an average of $2.5 million per team by selling space on their players’ helmets (per the above-linked Sports Business Journal article). With no fans in the seats in the near-term, it seems the league decided to go ahead and break the seal on selling the uniform in order to take less of a bath on fan-less hockey in 2021.

So what does this mean for fans? It means that the sanctity of the game is forever destroyed. It means the uniforms are doomed to become gaudy billboards like in many of the leagues throughout Europe. The New Jersey Devils will be the New Jersey Amazon Web Services Devils, presented by State Farm within two years. It means that players will soon be playing in sandwich boards and one player on the ice will be designated to be the sign-spinner at all times like they are standing outside of a Liberty Tax in late March. It means that vengeful hockey deities will soon smite us all for our consumerism and hubris. Cats and dogs living together. Mass hysteria.

Okay so maybe it’s not the end of the world. In all honesty, it’s probably just good business at this point, particularly considering the circumstances, but I at least get the angst that some people have about this development. I am by no means a purist on these matters, but I do know that this is one of those situations where the toothpaste probably isn’t going back into the tube. If you follow professional sports and are generally aware of the whole enterprise’s relationship with sponsorship deals, you know that once they turn on a specific money faucet, it is very unlikely they ever turn it off.

A scant few stadiums and arenas in North America exist without naming rights anymore. Brendan Byrne Arena became Continental Airlines Arena. Giants Stadium was demolished to make way for MetLife Stadium. Almost every interior inch of all these venues is covered with an ad of some sort. The NHL sold the walls, then they sold the ice, and now they’ve even virtually sold parts of the glass, depending on the game you’re watching. If there is one thing that is rarely in short supply when it comes to major professional sports, it’s eyeballs, and with eyeballs come revenue opportunities related to advertising. Teams and leagues being businesses, they ultimately seek to maximize that revenue. It’s easy to see the slippery slope that exists anytime a new sponsorship avenue is opened up.

Aside from equipment manufacturer logos, though, the largest North American team sports had held the line for a long time on uniforms. The NBA became the first league to buckle to the allure of the opportunity a few years back when they added a patch to the upper left portion of the front of their jerseys. Many predicted (it appears correctly) that they would just be the first domino to fall and it seems that the NHL will be the first of the rest to follow them into the breach. If there’s one thing to say about the NBA’s advertisements it’s that, at least for now, they’ve done a decent job limiting how distracting they are. If the NHL can follow suit and keep things tasteful (relatively speaking), perhaps this will be a minor annoyance for some and a non-issue for the rest.

So the title image above is probably not exactly what we’re in store for, since Bauer/Warrior/CCM is unlikely to want their branding covered up, but what could the helmet decals actually look like? Will teams each go with a local flavor specific to their market? Are we going to get Amazon and Google decals on everyone? Let’s take a stab at what we could end up with in New Jersey...

Palmieri and Severson with Taylor Ham helmet logos
Fun fact: the Devils’ jerseys include the colors of salt, pepper, and ketchup.
Original Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

If you want people to be less mad at you for selling out, try going with a local staple tied to the culture: Wawa decals in Philly, Ford logo in Detroit, Tim Horton’s or some sort of maple syrup conglomerate for your Canadian teams, etc. If people know anything about New Jerseyans, it’s that they (correctly) won’t shut the hell up about how good a Taylor ham, egg, and cheese sandwich is. Some people might even buy more merch if you slap a Taylor provisions logo on it. Probably can’t say the same about, I don’t know, JP Morgan or whatever, though I’ll admit the multinational banking conglomerate probably has deeper pockets than the Trenton-based purveyor of ham products.

Ultimately, I don’t think people care so much about the helmets. Rather, I think they are more concerned about where the league goes next. How far away is a shoulder or chest patch? How long until the crest is in the crosshairs? European soccer teams have been billboards for so long that no one much notices or cares about the shirt sponsor anymore but North American sports fans are considerably more squeamish about sponsors on uniforms in their leagues, and I tend to agree that team crests are a much better look as a focal point of a uniform than the logo for AutoZone or or whatever.

Miles will be a good representation of what happens when you use the other guy’s brake pads.
Original Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images

I think the NHL will have a little bit of a revolt (at least merchandise-wise) on their hands if they ever tried to swap out or minimize/reduce the prominence of the crest. The sweater in general is something that hockey fans take very seriously, so one does have to wonder what extent the league will go to try and avoid mucking up the jersey itself with ads. Helmets are the workaround right now (and one that they’ve been using in the AHL for quite a few years), but will we see ads on the gloves or pants before we reach the final frontier of jersey ads? The options are somewhat limited but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any at all...

Juicy Couture bested in a furious bidding war for the coveted rump ad.
Original Photo by Kevin Sousa/NHLI via Getty Images

Plausible? Perhaps not, but I think Nico pulls it off. In seriousness, I see maybe a thigh patch or a patch similar to the NBA somewhere on the upper chest or on the shoulder (like they did in the WCoH in 2016) being where things are headed if they go beyond the helmet. I think the thing that NHL fans are most fearful of, though, is a long term outlook of the uniforms turning into the insane mishmash of ads that has overrun jerseys in many European hockey leagues. Hockey is hockey and I’m likely to watch either way, but at some point do I think it’s a bit distracting to run out there looking like HC Davos (sorry for singling you out, HC Davos). Is this our future in the NHL?

“This sticker is dangerous and inconvenient, but I do love Fig Newtons.”
Original Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

My gut says it never quite gets that far, but these things have a way of creeping in over time. If the NHL can keep it restrained to a helmet decal for now and (because it feels inevitable to me) a small patch somewhere else on the uniform somewhere down the road without advancing beyond that, I think people will take it in stride. For the purists out there who are disappointed to see this day, I sympathize, because I do think it’s unlikely to be the last intrusion by sponsors onto the uniform. As it stands, the move to allow advertisers on helmets does not bother me a ton, particularly with the financial realities facing the league right now. But even if/when the pandemic recedes in the coming year, these ads seem unlikely to go away with it, and they represent a foothold for advertisers in a previously taboo space for the league.

Are people too melodramatic about the sanctity of NHL uniforms? They’re hockey fans, so yes. I do understand the anxiety for uniform purists and even casual observers, though. Counting on the NHL to see a new revenue stream and then not start going back to that well constantly until its inherent value is obliterated is an admittedly precarious position to be in. It is the new reality, though, so we’re all likely to have to get used to it.

Your Take

What are your thoughts on this move by the NHL? Are you fine with it? Ambivalent? Seething? And where do you think the league goes from here? Will they keep things limited to the helmets or do you see further encroachments from sponsors in the coming years? Share your predictions, worries, and/or rants below and thanks for reading.