By Matt Carlson In most of the world, the team sport linked to Adidas is soccer – or “football” just about everywhere outside the U.S. and Canada. And Adidas’ new seven-year partnership as the NHL’s “authentic outfitter of on-ice uniforms” figures to give the league’s licensed apparel sales and global brand exposure a boost when it kicks in, starting in 2017-18. With the deal, Adidas immediately became a hockey brand in jerseys, the NHL’s signature merchandise category. But its parent Adidas Group didn’t suddenly become a hockey company when the deal was announced this off-season.
The German-based corporation owns Reebok, the NHL’s jersey provider the past decade, as well as sister-brand CCM, the century-old maker of skates, sticks and player protective and goalie gear. But the deal means the Adidas name and logo – the iconic “Brand with Three Stripes” – will appear on NHL jerseys in some form that’s still to be determined, according to company and league execs. Players, coaches and training staff will also be outfitted in other Adidas-branded products.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said he’s thrilled by the resources Adidas will dedicate to the partnership, but the league isn’t releasing financial terms on the deal that makes the global footwear and apparel company its marquee “official supplier of licensed apparel and headwear.” The key to the agreement: Adidas will make, brand and distribute authentic and high-end replica NHL jerseys, including best-selling Premier models, that fans are buying in increasing numbers.
But don’t expect Adidas jerseys to resemble billboard-like, soccer-stylized hybrids. The first question to Bettman in a Sept. 15 conference call was about adding advertising to jerseys. His answer was an emphatic “no,” at least for now. And any drastic change to the look of jerseys is off the table. “The history, tradition and respect that goes with NHL sweaters is something that we and Adidas are very respectful of,” he said. “So reinventing isn’t something that we’re about to embark upon, but if there are better fabrics that are more comfortable and help performance, that’s one thing. We happen to like our jerseys a lot, and we think our fans do as well, as evidenced by the fact that when you go to one of our games you see how many people are actually wearing club jerseys.” Count among those customers both diehard and casual fans, as well as urban-chic fashionistas who dig the silhouette, colors and details of a garment that originated as a knit sweater. “In terms of future growth, the potential is big,” said Michael Rossi, president of Adidas Group Canada. “The NHL is experiencing tremendous growth across the board, and we’re excited to help the league continue this momentum.” Consider how many jersey-clad fans you see at the United Center, home of the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks, whose sweater sales lead the league. It helps to have a gorgeous logo and a team that’s won three Stanley Cups in six seasons. But insights into the Blackhawks’ sales give an idea of just how big the jersey business is. A Reebok-branded Blackhawks men’s Premier sweater in red with Patrick Kane’s name on the back – last year’s No. 1 seller – costs $169.95 on shop.nhl.com. An authentic Edge version, the same model worn by him on the ice, runs $359.95. According to Laura Clawson, Blackhawks director of merchandising, the team’s jersey sales increased 70 percent in dollars and 64 percent in units during 2014-15 compared to 2013-14. Throw in the playoffs, and sales increased 130 percent in dollars over the previous year. A surprising or deep post-season run can make jersey sales soar, as can the signing of a top draft pick or free agent, or a trade. “It can be dramatically different from city to city,” said Michael Cannon, Pro Hockey Life’s associate vice president of purchasing. “For example, in Edmonton there is obviously a lot of hype around (Connor) McDavid, and so the spectrum of fans wanting to purchase an Oilers jersey will be significantly different than say Vancouver or even Toronto.” Despite online availability, many customers want to touch and feel their jerseys before plunking down a credit card. Blackhawks fans lean toward buying at the United Center or team stores in downtown Chicago or in a suburban mall. In the arena store, fans can customize any adult jersey with lettering or add a patch on the spot. “Our hope is fans are purchasing all or most of their Blackhawks apparel including jerseys from our store locations,” Clawson said. “Though it’s unrealistic with e-commerce, we’ve learned 37 percent of the time fans are shopping on shop.nhl.com.” Sales have also been boosted by jerseys tailored for women. Models for kids and even infants are selling well, according to the NHL. There have been plenty of rumors about how Adidas may or may not tweak the look or fabrication of the jerseys players wear. We may not get an idea until Adidas unveils its jerseys for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. The agreement for the tournament also involves the NHL Players’ Association. “The hockey jersey is very traditional and very much a fabric of the game, and I think the integrity of that is very important to the NHL, the Players’ Association and the game,” said Mark King, president of Adidas Group North America. “So this would be something that we’d move more slowly on.” But King hinted that changes to help players perform better on the ice might be on the drawing board. “If you look at what we do in U.S. football we use this Tech Fit technology, which is really light and a fit closer to the body,” King said. “It allows more mobility and freedom. So that would be the No. 1 technology that we’d look at. It’s a dramatic shift from where the uniform is today.” That’s not the only jersey advantage Adidas offers. Placing NHL franchises overseas may be a ways off, but selling interest in hockey and the league around the world – especially in untapped Asian markets – is a lot closer. Adidas knows that foreign turf and has established distribution channels to reach it. Consumers in those places know the Adidas brand. That’s also important to the NHLPA, which shares in licensed merchandise revenue under the collective bargaining agreement. “Adidas’ strength in Europe and in markets like Russia…are really important to us,” said NHLPA president Don Fehr. “We’re seeing it with the World Cup of Hockey and some of the other events that we have. They can really help lead us to grow that global brand, global business potential that the commissioner has been talking about.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the October 26 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.