In early October, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman gave an informal state-of-the-league address in which he used the phrase: "our best season off the ice" and said the following:
"The League is in an incredible place as it relates to stability, whether it's long-term agreements with our players or our national broadcasters, or whether it's the fact that our franchises from an ownership standpoint have never been more stable. We think the vital signs are not only good, they're terrific."
So with all this good news rolling in, why did league chief operating officer John Collins come out at a sports media technology conference and ruin everyone's good feelings by announcing advertising on NHL jerseys is "coming and happening" and that NHL had recently seen a proposal to reemploy the infamous glowing puck (as seen on Fox hockey broadcasts in the 1990s)? At long last, has the league no decency, no base-level restraint so as not to carpet-bomb consumers of its product with endless corporate hawking?
Here's all the answer you need in that regard: three lockouts in 20 years. There is, in fact, nothing sacred with this collection of owners. They've been emboldened by fans' willingness to return in greater numbers every year no matter how many times the league holds the game hostage, and they're going to continue to push their luck until the people who buy tickets and merchandise push back. Let's revisit this line of thought in a moment.
To be fair, the news Collins delivered on the glowing puck front isn't the same as the issue of ads on jerseys. Although most longtime hockey fans (myself included) had cringe attacks every time they saw that TV gimmick streak up their screen, the NHL should be commended for attempting to be on the vanguard of sports broadcasting technology. It would be a mistake to bring back glowing pucks for all the same reasons it was right for them to disappear, but there's nothing wrong with considering all options available to you as an entertainment company.
And that's the problem I have with ads on jerseys: it does nothing to enhance the entertainment experience for fans. For the same reason we won't discuss unicorns and a world without bank fees, let's dispose with the risible notion money made from jersey ads would go toward reducing ticket prices. It's not happening. The only reason it would be there would be to put more money into the pockets of owners and players. And it does so at the expense of the identifier of each of the league's 30 tribes – the thing that makes each fan base swell with pride at the sight of their own, and that makes them recoil at the sight of someone else's.
As former NHLer and Sportsnet analyst Mike Johnson told me on Twitter, ads on jerseys are widely accepted in European sports (including pro hockey and soccer leagues). And there has already been talk of the NBA putting ads on theirs.
But there is such a thing as corporate overreach – the point where a business goes too far and stirs in its customers an anger that doesn't dissipate after a few days and ultimately does more harm than good. And it seems to me that, of all the issues that could turn into a raging corporate overreach fire for the NHL, ads on jerseys could be it. As I wrote in THN magazine in the spring, hockey fans have a link with their jersey that runs as deep, if not deeper than any other fan base in any sport. To presume they'll just sit back and happily accept this visual infringement on their sense of self is to play with fire.
Everyone knows businesses exist to make money. But when the core of your business is about identity and 30 individual brands under a larger corporate umbrella, introducing a slew of other brands to piggyback on them is tantamount to diluting your product's impact. And again, the league isn't hurting for money here. The organization is healthier than it's ever been. Why mess with that for a few millions more?
It might make sense in the short term because of the cash windfall, but its long-term impact might not be so positive. Doesn't sound like the NHL at all, does it? On a related note, has a sarcasm font been invented yet?