July 29, 2009
How exactly does a marketing guy for a European hockey team go about selling the back of the thigh to an advertiser? "Yah, both armpits are sold old; can I interest you in something slightly below the buttocks?"
USA Today has a story this morning that takes the temperature of professional sports leagues and their flirtation with covering uniforms with advertisements. Mostly, it covers the slow encroachment of commercial space on practice jerseys in the NBA and NFL, along with the WNBA's decision to allow ads on game jerseys this season. But it seems to point to the NBA one day placing logos and slogans from sponsors on its uniforms, and also includes this chilling quote from the land of puck:
NHL chief operating officer John Collins says the league might put ads on game jerseys for the right price.
Catch your breath for a moment. I worked for a publisher back in my newspaper days that used to say the same thing about selling the entire cover of the paper to a single advertiser ... for $10 million. If the local carpet cleaning business felt the urge to drop that kind of money to captivate a suburban Virginia audience for a week, she'd at least listen, right?
But there's a big difference between listening and implementing; between "might" and "will." We hope the lure of ad revenue won't one day win out over maintaining the sanctity of the uniform. But we're not exactly optimistic about NHL jerseys remaining ad-free in the coming years.
The NHL has, over the years, placed advertising on everything it can: the arena, the ice, the boards, the curtain in front of which coaches and players give interviews. As USA Today reminds us, the NHL is now even selling space that doesn't really exist: CGI'ing virtual ads on the glass during televised games. From USA Today:
"As with anything new, you weigh tradition with the commercialization of sports," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says. "Obviously, sports are becoming more commercialized each and every year. We have that debate internally all the time. Where do you draw the line? How much is too much? You have to protect the look and feel of the game. You look at professional hockey played in Europe and there's advertising on jerseys and on the ice. You can have so much advertising on the ice that it can be distracting to players. There's a balance there."
It could be the players that strike that balance. Their increased input in marketing decisions will be a major point of contention during the next CBA negotiation, and from what we've seen they're not exactly adverse to the idea of ads on game jerseys.
Remember last year, when goalies like Martin Brodeur(notes) of the New Jersey Devils and then-Edmonton Oilers player Dwayne Roloson(notes) were helping to craft a proposal for advertisements on goalie sweaters?
In what would be a radical overhaul that might incite hockey traditionalists but surely gratify some of the league's cash-strapped owners, several NHL goalies have asked the league and its players union to consider starting a so-called Goaltender's Club. Revenue-generating initiatives for the club could include placing a corporate logo on the jerseys of the league's 60-odd goalies.
The players are working alongside prominent hockey marketer Brad Robins and Edmonton player agent Ritch Winter. Robins and Winter estimate on-uniform ads might generate upwards of $30 million a season for the NHL. Robins has already briefed Gary Bettman on the concept, though it's uncertain whether the NHL commissioner has endorsed the idea.
The players know jersey ads can generate tons of dough, and the Europeans in the NHL come from places where the commercialization of the sweater is the norm.
The owners know jersey ads can generate tons of dough, and lord knows they'll squeeze out every dime if given the green light.
In the end, it's the League and Gary Bettman that are going to be the gatekeepers here. They've fought for hockey tradition in the past, battling pacifists on fighting and keeping the shootout away from the Stanley Cup playoffs. But how much is maintaining a pristine Detroit Red Wings or Montreal Canadiens jersey worth to hockey's bottom line considering the economic climate?
Perhaps there are compromises to be found. Sell the hell out of the practice jerseys -- who cares about them? But when it comes to ads on game sweaters, what about restricting them to third jerseys? That way, we'll never see them in the playoffs; we'll only see them a finite number of times during the regular season; and, if nothing else, they'll distract the eye from monstrosities like the Ottawa Senators' SNES jersey and whatever the hell the Atlanta Thrashers call this.