Now that is reportedly a matter of when, not if, the NHL will have advertising on their jerseys; the impact and merits are fully up to debate. There are certainly many factors to consider when it comes to advertising on jerseys that go beyond simply their aesthetic value. But the most basic question remains, who does this benefit?
The simple answer is that the league will benefit from this decision. The advertising on jerseys will bring more revenue to the NHL and that is good for the owners. But will the additional revenue result in any benefit for the casual fan? With the bump to teams' respective bottom lines, could we see more affordable ticket sales? Or is this just going to result in a higher salary cap and higher salaries for players.
Jerseys are the artistic expression from teams to wear as a badge of honour for the city they are representing. They are the uniform the fans put on in unison when they travel out to support their team. The presence of advertising cheapens the look, and draws attention to the corporate side of the game that most fans would rather ignore.
The most frustrating aspect of this decision is that it seems to be made with complete disregard of much simpler alternatives. The one that comes immediately to mind... is advertising. The NHL has routinely failed to properly market both their players, and the game. Back in 1994 Sports Illustrated ran a cover saying "WHY THE NHL IS HOT AND THE NBA IS NOT" citing a change in momentum in major league sports. The NHL was poised to propel itself to new heights in popularity as the hottest up and coming league. A few lockouts and countless missteps later, and the story is quite different. That difference is felt most when you look at the newest television deals signed by both leagues:
NBA: $24-billion over nine years, plus whatever they get in Canada. NHL: Combined $7.2-billion over a combination of 10/12-year deals.— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) October 6, 2014
The difference between those television deals would dwarf whatever revenue they will be receiving from ads on jerseys and make the decision to add them, unnecessary. Personal preferences exist, and you can't change everyone's minds when it comes to what sports they watch. But a discrepancy THAT dramatic is easily attributed to how poorly the league has done in stirring up interest in their product.
Rivalries drive sports. Stars, characters, personalities, and personal interest stories help bring in the casual fan. If you tune in to Sunday NFL Countdown you will see over-saturated coverage of every possible story line. But what they do better than anyone, is feature their players, personal interest stories, and tales of incredible perseverance in the face of adversity. They get you to care about the players and their stories. You see the game as more than two cities and faceless jerseys doing battle.
When Evander Kane was out early this season with an injury, the Jets had him do media with the team and produced several entertaining features. It was a refreshing momentum from an organization that could be described as stale since their relocation from Atlanta. It was a step in the right direction and something that should continue and spread across the league. I'm not saying the Jets were the first to do something like this, I'm stating that it's something that people are hungry for. Shows like 24/7 and 24CH have been incredibly successful and the former drew tons of attention from casual fans. The league needs to look at the signs, identify a need and capitalize on it.
Sidney Crosby is arguably the best player on the planet, but I don't know anything about him. P.K. Subban is well spoken, electric in his play, full of personality and polarizing; but the league does nothing to market him as a feature player. Any other league would capitalize on his divisiveness and market him as a star; but the NHL refuses to do this to any of their players. To become a professional athlete means overcoming adversity, defying the odds and tons of hard work. Teams need to highlight this and share the stories of their players. Do any of the Jets have any philanthropic convictions other than PR organized events? If so, I'd like to know about their passions.
It's stuff like this that will help create a deeper connection to communities, more attention from casual fans and a growth in popularity for the league. My confession is, none of this would make a difference to me. I'm a hockey fan. I'm going to watch no matter how badly the league screws up. I was here after the last lockout and I'll be here after the next. Hockey is a beautiful game and it's fans embody the true fanaticism for the sport. But the inability of the league to bring in the casual fan and grow beyond a niche sport is now causing a cheap gimmick to become to be slapped in the face of every fan during every game. Simply existing in southern markets doesn't cause the game to grow, you need to put in the effort to bring the NHL into more households. It's a lazy solution to a problem that's been caused by the leagues own incompetence, and it will cheapen the game that I love.