No sweater is safe in sport, thanks to jersey ads
We’re almost a few weeks into the NHL season, and despite all the troubles in Leafsland, it’s worth noting that the hockey apocalypse hasn’t arrived yet.
Planet NHL has yet to veer off its axis. The ice caps did not melt en masse. Perhaps to the surprise of some purists, the widely maligned debut of advertising patches on some of the sport’s most vaunted jerseys didn’t anger the hockey gods to the point of an NHL apocalypse.
Most of the few weeks after the start of the season, this observer would suggest that it is possible to watch a game without really noticing the advertisements on the shirts. Not that there weren’t those who rightly cried foul when the Montreal Canadiens unveiled the RBC crest that now adorns the right chest of their uniform. The timeless design of the Canadiens jersey, after all, is rooted in the very culture of Canada. Roch Carrier’s children’s book, ‘The Hockey Sweater’ – about a Quebec boy who outgrows his Canadiens jersey and, due to a shipping oversight, is forced to endure the pain of donning the Maple Leafs jersey that arrives in the mail – is a Canadian classic that has sold over 300,000 copies. A passage from the book once adorned the back of the five dollar bill.
Surely Carrier, or anyone who appreciates the significance of La Sainte-Flanelle – or the “holy flannel,” as the Montreal sweater is sometimes called in Quebec – would be outraged by the brazen sale of such hallowed real estate. And even though the Leafs have chosen a « partner patch » that’s a bit more apt – the word « Milk » now adorns the right shoulder of their jersey thanks to a deal with Ontario Dairy Farmers worth of $10 million a year, which seems to suit a long-famous franchise like a cash cow – the approval was far from universal. Heck, it wasn’t until 2015 that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman insisted he should be ‘kicked and screamed’ before he gave his thumbs up to advertising on sweaters.
But now the season is on. It is understood that, in this flatcap environment in which players are still paying off pandemic debt to owners, all revenue is good revenue. And most people seem to move on.
« It’s not the end of the world, » NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said recently of jersey ads. « People have adapted to other things we’ve done over time, and it doesn’t turn out to be that bad. »
That’s a good point. There was a time when NHL rinks, not to mention jerseys and helmets — the latter getting the advertising treatment in 2020-21 — were much less cluttered with commercial logos. And although there is always a decline in cash seizures, life tends to go on. It was in the late 1970s that Toronto owner Harold Ballard had a picture of a tiger affixed to the otherwise blank Maple Leaf Gardens signs during Leafs games, his attempt to get free publicity for the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats, which he had recently purchased. . When NHL commissioner John Ziegler threatened to fine Ballard because rules stated that NHL rink boards had to remain white, but for puck marks, Ballard publicly threatened to smash Ziegler’s neck.
The tiger, notice, has been removed. But it wasn’t long before the clubs were cashing in on the rink-related revenue.
Yet even though advertising has made an exponential encroachment on the game-viewing experience since the days of clean-lined arenas, there was a sense in some quarters that the hockey jersey was sacrosanct. Of course, Major League Soccer treated their shirts like billboards from the start. But such has been the culture of sports for decades.
And, yes, the NBA divested some of its jerseys to advertising patches in 2017. Next year, even bigger patches will be coming to the sleeves of Major League Baseball uniforms. The Blue Jays have yet to announce any development on that front. But judging by the numbers being traded – it’s been reported that the Red Sox will announce a 10-year deal to wear a Mass Mutual patch on their jersey sleeve that will bring in around $17 million a year – it’s not hard to imagine the widespread adoption of this particular advertising space.
As difficult as it may seem, it is the NFL that is the last to resist jersey announcements among the four major North American leagues.
“The NFL, in some ways, has kind of stayed a little bit more pure. Who would have thought? I wouldn’t have predicted this,” said Paul Lukas, the expert-eyed enthusiast of sports aesthetics behind the popular and highly entertaining website uni-watch.com.
That said, for Lukas, there’s not much to like about the NHL decision.
“It’s the Jerry Seinfeld thing we all look for in laundry; that players come and go but you keep defending that uniform no matter who wears it. It’s the power of the uniform,” said Lukas. « And I think that’s why it’s such a shame to take something so special, the bond between the fan and the team, and water it down and smear it with another brand, just to sell the space above. »
Lukas, to be fair, said he couldn’t disagree with Daly. This is not the end of the world.
« It’s not, no. But is it part of the drip, drip, drip of little things that cumulatively make watching a game a little less enjoyable? Yeah. For me , it is, » Lukas said. « It’s like having a splinter. A splinter isn’t debilitating, but it’s really annoying. These ads, when I see them, it’s like a splinter in my brain… I would never say it was the end of the world, but once you get there, where else will you go?
Indeed, as Lukas said, maybe next year’s patch is a bit bigger. Maybe one patch becomes two.
“Once you accept these things as OK, it opens the door to other things,” Lukas said. “When is that enough? Or is it never enough? »
The recent history of professional sports suggests that is never the case. A piece of sacred Montreal flannel can be bought for a price, surely nothing is sacred. Roch Carrier, who has done more than anyone to mythologize the place of the hockey jersey in Canadian culture, would be outraged.
Or maybe not. The 85-year-old carrier, for the record, declined an interview request for this article. But he politely presented his reasoning in an email. He has a daughter, he explained, who is having a successful career at RBC.
« I don’t think I should be involved in this discussion, » Carrier wrote. « I hope you understand. »
What should not be understood? Maybe there’s a lucrative RBC sponsorship lined up when the next “Hockey Jersey” is set to be reprinted.
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