Listen to any sporting event on the radio, and you realize how even the most inconsequential play is now sponsored by some corporate entity. Walk into any sporting venue, and you realize every space that could be turned into an advertisement has been, from the luxury suites to the power plays to the glass behind the nets (thanks, CGI).
Well, almost every space. If the question was "what part of the arena could possibly be transformed into a revenue stream next?", the Florida Panthers recently provided the answer: The rink itself.
Starting next season, the Panthers will play on The Lexus Rink at the BankAtlantic Center, which is how it will be referenced on team broadcasts and in promotional materials.
"They wanted a game changer," said Panthers President Michael Yormark of Lexus, a longtime sponsor of the team. "People are always looking for the same old thing, and that's not in our DNA."
So once you sell the ice, what's next? How about the gear? Would Yormark put ads on Panthers jerseys if the NHL allowed it?
"Yes, I would," he said.
"Obviously, the jerseys are the next great frontier, but obviously there needs to be a lot of thought that goes into it, in terms of how you want to market the jersey as it relates to sponsorship. I don't think that we want to get close to what NASCAR has done. That's not to say what they do is wrong, because it works within their sport and culture. I don't think that works in the National Hockey League ... but I do think there's an opportunity for some branding on the jerseys. If you go to Europe, it's pretty common."
And it's also overkill, looking very much like that NASCAR aesthetic.
"Absolutely, and I don't think we want to go in that direction," Yormark said in an interview last Friday. "But at some point, there will be a great debate about it, and at some point it may be strongly, strongly considered. And if it was, we'd take advantage of it."
"The dollars that have been generated in European soccer with jersey sponsorships have been absolutely enormous," he continued.
"I do believe it presents an incredible opportunity, and I'm hopeful that one day it's something the National Hockey League does take seriously. But there will have to be limitations."
Odd to hear Yormark talk about limitations, because the Panthers rarely exhibit them in their marketing. Which, for a team struggling to build a larger fan base, is a good thing.
Their promotions are legendary: Witness the "Name Your Price" season ticket plan or their reaction to LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach. They've also been known to market directly to opposing fan bases, touting Panthers games as part of a vacation experience for Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens fans.
"The most important thing is to fill seats and sell tickets," said Yormark. "I'm not going to apologize for marketing to fans in Montreal or Philadelphia or Detroit. To have 16,000 or 17,000 people in the building, it's great theater."
In their theater of hockey, the Panthers found a way to sell their stage to Lexus.
It's a genius move on a number of levels, none the least that they managed to add a sponsor to a rink that's already sold all four of its sponsorship positions on the ice. Instead, Yormark said, Lexus will be featured on signage on the scoreboard, the dashers and other parts of the rink.
But the real value, he said, is name value.
"I think eventually people will refer to it as the Lexus Rink at the BankAtlantic Center," said Yormark, noting that the team's broadcasters will constantly refer to it in that manner. "It's got a nice flow to it. It even creates more value for the naming rights holder, because whenever Lexus is mentioned, BankAtlantic is mentioned as well."
Yormark said that finding this new avenue for Lexus was vital in "maintaining" their relationship, which was due to expire at the end of the season. "This is something I've been holding in my back pocket for the right partner. When I understood their goals and objectives, I pulled it out of my back pocket and they fell in love with it."
Will other NHL teams fall in love with it, too? Will we one day have the Subway Eat Fresh Rink at Madison Square Garden?
The Minnesota Vikings sold their playing surface naming rights to Mall of America in 2009; since then, the trend hasn't really caught on. But Yormark said there's interest from his peers.
"We've gotten a lot of calls. From a marketing standpoint, I'd like to think we're out of the box. We like to do things on the cutting edge," he said.
"Until we win, people won't really recognize the creativity we've shown for the last five to eight years. There's not a lot of teams that would have survived in a non-traditional market with a team that hasn't made the playoffs in the last 11 years and 10 seasons."