By Stu Hackel
The news late last month that the NBA had tentatively approved a plan to put advertising patches on players' game jerseys for the 2013-14 season should serve as a warning to North American hockey fans that there's a decent chance we'll see something similar adopted by the NHL during the next few years.
Ads on hockey jerseys are not new. We see them in minor pro and especially in European leagues, where the sweaters have so many ad logos on them that the players look like race cars on skates. But the four major North American pro sports have always bowed to tradition and respected fans by not festooning their heroes -- even though the environments that surround them, both in the arena and on TV, are increasingly commercialized, sometimes to a claustrophobic extent.
Now it seems as if the last barrier will fall in one major league and the others may not be far behind.
First a bit of background: The NBA has not yet officially decided that the patches -- 2.5-inch squares -- will be on jerseys. What the league did was discuss the matter at its most recent Board of Governors meeting in July. NBA.com blogger Scott Howard-Cooper wrote that, "While no vote was taken on putting advertisements on jerseys for the first time, the discussion in the ballroom inside the Encore hotel on the (Las Vegas) Strip showed a strong preference to move forward, deputy commissioner Adam Silver said. The final decision will likely come in an e-mail vote in September and be implemented for 2013-14, giving teams the chance to line up sponsors and uniform makers the time to add the patch of 2-½ inches-by-2-½ just above the heart."
A dubious placement, eh?
Silver went on to say that he believed the patches will be worth $100 million annually to the league's 30 clubs. That's a good deal more than the value projected in a study conducted by a group called Horizon Media, which put the NBA's total at only $30 million. The same study put the NHL at only $8 million, which comes out to slightly more than $250,000 per team per season. That's not really very much money at all -- unless Horizon vastly underrated the value of these ads, which could be the case if you consider the difference between their NBA estimate and Silver's.
In any case, as Terry Lofton reported in Sports Business Journal in Feb. 2011, Horizon's research also found that, "While NHL teams posted the lowest monetary value in the survey, the NHL's quality impact score was second only to MLB. Hockey's fast pace of play provides for fewer detection opportunities during game action, but when play is stopped in the NHL, the exposure 'duration,' or amount of time the jersey is visible on-screen, is higher in hockey than other sports."
If the NBA goes through with the patches -- and that's the direction in which the league is headed -- how far behind will the other sports be? The NHL especially would look very closely at pursuing this new revenue stream and might have more understanding of it than the other leagues, considering that ads are so prevalent at other levels of the game. Plus, there's a stronger link between the NBA and the NHL than the other sports. Five NHL franchises share a corporate parent with an NBA club and nine NHL teams share arenas with NBA clubs. That familiarity would help shepherd the process along in the NHL.
The pros and cons of ads on hockey sweaters are obvious: The additional revenue is always welcome, of course. The biggest argument against them, as articulated by Ira Boudway in Business Week is, "While dealmakers are understandably gung-ho, fans might not be thrilled to have advertisers invade one of the few commerce-free corners of the game." Hockey's very tradition-conscious fans aren't going to rave about, say, a Piggly Wiggly patch on the Carolina Hurricanes' or Nashville Predators' shirts.
And there's also the possible downside noted by Lance Madden on Forbes Magazine's website: What if some fans dislike the sponsor?
On the other hand, we've reluctantly gotten used to and accepted the silly naming rights deals for arenas, in which a building's identity can absurdly change with, for example, a simple bank merger. We've also tolerated the ever-creeping encroachment of ads on the boards and beyond. On TV, we now see ads superimposed on the glass behind the nets. There were supposed to be no no ads on the ice, then only in the neutral zone. Now we see them inside the bluelines. How long will it be before the face-off circles are brought to you by Target?
The lesson of this encroachment into the playing environment is that a patch might be just the beginning and once that threshold is crossed, expansion may be inevitable and NHL players could one day end up looking like NASCAR drivers.
So while we might not like it, we're fairly powerless to stop it. We've relied on the good taste of team owners all these years to preserve some sense of professional sports dignity in how the players appear during games and -- although the easy joke is that "good taste" and "owners" are something of an oxymoron -- these guys are in business, and dignity can fly out the window when someone comes in the door with a suitcase of money.
A larger question is what sweater ads might mean in the current labor-management situation. Revenue is what the players and owners are currently negotiating during their collective bargaining talks, and you can be sure that how the owners would distribute this potential new source would be of great interest to the NHLPA. As you'd imagine, the big-revenue clubs in the major markets would command more money for their ad patches than the small-revenue clubs, making this another case of the rich getting richer. With revenue sharing set to be a huge theme in the CBA negotiations, you have to wonder if the sides will have the foresight to include this not-yet-flowing revenue stream in their discussions.
This is all very speculative -- not the type of subject often mulled on Red Light. (Hey, it's early August; can't write about Shane Doan and the CBA every day.) Still, hockey fans are justifiably proud of their team's sweaters and logos, believing them to be the best in sports. Having them defiled by product endorsements seems very wrong.
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