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Opinion: Ads on NHL Jerseys Are a Big No-No

Advertisements bring in revenue for the NHL, but it's heresy to stain perfectly beautiful jerseys with ads, Adam Proteau says.
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Everyone has their own end line – also known as the “do not cross” line – when it comes to advertising in the NHL. 

For me, it wasn’t when the league started allowing advertising on rink boards – although it wasn’t an enjoyable sight to see, that’s for certain. It wasn’t when ads began popping up in various parts of the ice. It wasn’t when virtual ads became a thing. It wasn’t even when the NHL recently allowed corporate logos on player helmets.

But the line, for me, is ads on player jerseys. And that line is about to be crossed. The NHL is estimating teams can raise more than $100 million – that’s $100 million per team – and that would be a nice chunk of change for the players and owners. But in the bigger picture, it is heresy to stain perfectly beautiful jerseys with advertisements.

This news first came out in the summer, and it was noted ads won’t appear until next season. But that is small comfort, knowing the ugliness is beginning only a year from now. As I said on Twitter, what’s next for the league to make into an advertisement space? A player’s cheeks and forehead? It honestly would not surprise me if that eventually happened. Owners want every last penny they can squeeze out of the sport, and if there’s open space somewhere, they’ve shown they’re ready to monetize it.

But you know what? There’s something to be said for restraint. There’s something else to be said for sacred ground. And this latest foray into jersey defilement shows there is nothing sacred about the product they put out. Anything goes. Apparently, any part of an in-game experience/live broadcast must include some sort of advertisements. With this latest money grab, they are nearly as much of a National Advertising League as they are a National Hockey League.

For most, if not all of its history, the NHL has made a priority of marketing teams, not players. And now they want to sabotage the aura of jerseys with scatterings of ads everywhere people look? What if the league sells $150 million less or more in jerseys because? Suddenly, that $100 million isn’t as big of a number.

At some point, enough is enough. If NHL teams want to hold these ads up as being some kind of franchise-saving cure to their alleged financial problems, somebody has to tell me why franchise values have skyrocketed in the Era of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. People don’t pay hundreds of millions of dollars to buy an expansion team in a league that desperately needs to scrape money off of every part of the operation.

No other entity other than a sports team has to deal with ads on jerseys. You don’t see network TV shows that have a corporate logo running alongside entire episodes. Yes, there’s the scourge of product placement, but other entertainment products – and that’s what the NHL is – still haven’t sunk to the level of sports.

That’s what ads on jerseys are – a full-length, non-stop, running ad that will be the only constant throughout each game. It doesn’t matter how small the initial ads are. Inevitably, they’ll get bigger, team logos will grow bulkier and appear more craven. It will never end until they run out of room, and even then, people at ownership levels of hockey will be searching for some type of new way to have the ads consume the game.

People love the game. People love franchises and players. Nobody says, “Hey, remember when our team won the Stanley Cup and Sidney Crosby bounced into the end boards after scoring the winning goal? I do, and it was so cool when he skated into the Dunkin’ Donuts ad against the boards!”. People these days actively ignore ads, and if the NHL decides to put a slew of them on jerseys, people will start to actively ignore jerseys.

That’s the danger here. Teams have already started selling jersey ads, so we may well be already past the point of no return. But there could always be a return. The league could decide to change course and remove ads after next season. But there has to be the political will to do so.

Sure, some people aren’t bothered by jersey ads, and in many ways, I get it. Jersey ads are all over soccer jerseys; they’ve started to appear on Major League Baseball and National Basketball Associaton jerseys; and they’re virtually everywhere in minor-league sports. My answer to that? Basically, it’s that old line, “Just because everyone is doing it, that doesn’t mean you need to do it.” The NHL has survived this long without jersey ads, and I don’t believe they’d be mortally damaged if they continued not having them.

In the end, this is about money, but it also is about protecting a brand that has earned its owners billions. Ads on jerseys lessen the impact those jerseys and those teams have. The right move is avoiding them like poison. We’ll see if the NHL ultimately has enough respect for the game to discontinue their use before it starts, and keep away from them forever.

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