Mark King used to play hockey growing up, on northern Wisconsin ice. Now, he’s responsible for what pro players are going to wear on NHL ice.
King is Group North America President for adidas, which just entered into a seven-year contract with the NHL beginning in 2017 (and after they design the sweaters for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, which will debut in the next four months).
Adidas will work with the NHL to tweak the current jerseys. They’ll play around with different materials. They’ll bring their original ideas to the table, and see what the NHL wants to select.
That’s what has some hockey fans nervous: adidas’s ideas. When they were implemented in NCAA football, the results were form-fitting uniforms with “ugly, head-scratching looks,” according to Lost Lettermen.
Then there’s the elephant in the room: ads on jerseys. Commissioner Gary Bettman said the NHL won’t be the first league to put them on uniforms, and he said “you’d have to drag me kicking and screaming” to do so. Which, of course, wasn’t a “never.”
We spoke with King about ads on jerseys, about the integrity of the game and about whether or not the flowing NHL sweater will be replaced by a form-fitting adidas jersey.
And here … we …. go.
Q. The almost immediate reaction from fans after the deal was announced was a fear over what the jerseys could look like after an adidas redesign. Let’s start with Tech-Fit materials. You’ve used it for NCAA football. It’s lightweight, it enhances performance. But you said it would fundamentally change the look of a hockey jersey. Can you expand on that?
KING: We talked a lot about what kind of technologies we could bring to the NHL. We talked about smart technologies, and putting things in jerseys to be able to track steps and effort … we have a lot of technology there.
We talked about the reason all these colleges like us, which is the Tech-Fit, which is a completely different uniform. Players have more flexibility and mobility in it, and they really like it.
Gary has a very clear vision about NHL jerseys. They like really like them. They’re very proud of them. They think they’re very much part of the fabric of the game. So all we said is, ‘Guys, we’re here. We have ways in which we can change your jerseys, or we can continue to produce the ones we do today.’
They will lead and we will react.
Like you said: There’s a fundamental look to a hockey jersey. It’s free flowing, you can try to grab it with your glove to hold the guy. The one phrase people are wondering about with adidas is “form-fitting,” which is what we see with the Tech-Fit uniforms. Would the Tech-Fit applied to hockey make this more of a form-fitting jersey?
Well, if it were this Tech-Fit that we use in the football jerseys, then yes, it would be.
Now, it wouldn’t have to be as form-fitting as football. You can find degrees of form-fitting.
But I think the overall message is this: There are technologies available. There are different fits available. Our deal with the NHL is that they take the lead, and we’ll follow them. If they want to explore into other things, we’ll be there right with them. This is their deal, and we’re just here to support.
Earlier this year, the NHL teased its player tracked technology at the All-Star Game. Was that a big part of your talks with the league, the integration of that kind of tech into the sweaters?
Yes, it was. It was one of the very first points they brought up, because they’re thinking about it from a few different fronts. There was player information for coaches and teams, for fitness; they’re also thinking bigger, about how to enhance the fan experience on TV or in the arena.
We have all of the technologies. But the issue is they’re very expensive. So if you’re not going to use it, it would be hard to justify the expense. But I think during the midterm, it’s something we’ll explore.
The other big question people have about adidas taking over the jerseys: Where are the adidas stripes going to be? Are we going to have them on the shoulders of the sweater?
It’s a good question, and I’m trying not to skirt the answer, but we really haven’t gotten that far.
One of the most important things for the NHL was that they control the design. It doesn’t mean they can’t influence it. It doesn’t mean we can make suggestions. But at the end of the day, the design and where the logo goes is up to them.
For us, the more compelling the logo exposure is, and the cooler it looks, the better it is for everyone. But the ultimate decision lays with them.
Is it accurate to say the NHL has retained more control over its jerseys that other leagues have in your deals with them?
Absolutely. But you heard Gary talk about that on the call: The integrity of the game, the iconic look of the sweater – Gary still calls it a sweater – they believe it’s the fabric of the game and they know what they want to put in front of fans.
Hockey fans have a complicated relationship with Bettman. But for all the gripes I’ve had about his commissionership, the one thing you can say about the guy is that he’s a traditionalist. I believe him when he defends fighting, and I sorta believe him when he says he’ll sell ads on jerseys or dramatically change them “while getting dragged kicking a screaming.”
I’ve known him now just for a year. You know, Roger Goodell can talk all he wants about the integrity of the game, but in talking with Gary, the integrity of the game is at the core of every decision he makes.
One of the things that makes the NHL an attractive league for a gear maker is how much gear you get to make: Regular season, third jersey, outdoor games, World Cup, Ryder Cup, and the rest. In those jerseys for special occasions and special events, is that where you can see advertising creeping into the NHL first?
Honestly, I’m not going to touch that one. It’s not my deal. You can see how sensitive Gary is about it. I don’t know. But I’ll say this: We’re open to anything. We’re ready to go when they are.
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