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The Thin End Of the Wedge™

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Glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity.

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Well folks, it’s finally happened. It has been confirmed that the NHL is planning to adopt jersey advertising. Starting with the 2022/23 season, the NHL will allow teams to have a 3”x3.5” patch on the upper part of the teams’ jerseys. It will not be a surprise to see the teams jump at the opportunity to plaster corporate logos on their jerseys, and another thing that’s made hockey great will be lost to time, but a quaint memory of a bygone age.

How We Got Here

We’ve been on ad watch for years now. Back in 2017, the National Basketball Association announced they’d include corporate sponsorship logos on their uniforms. At the time Gary Bettman said the NHL wasn’t planning on following the NBA’s lead, but it’s honestly felt like a looming threat ever since. The COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the NHL opted to proceed with concluding the 2019/20 season and holding a 2020/21 season, albeit a shortened one, without fans in attendance, announcing that the teams would be allowed to sell ad space on their helmets for corporate sponsorships. The company line at the time was that this was just for one year to compensate for monetary losses, but one could easily get the sense from the cavalcade of team press releases announcing how proud teams were to enter into these “helmet entitlement deals” that the franchises and their ownership teams never had any intention of this being a short-term thing. Sure enough, barely over a month removed from the Stanley Cup being handed out, came the announcement that teams would now be allowed to sell advertising space on the jerseys themselves, starting in 2022/23.

Rumination

I flat out do not like this. As a child, I was never one to have a terribly long attention span. I was pretty much capable of neither sitting through a game nor playing one on a video game. I didn’t know the name of the players, didn’t understand many of the rules, and had no appreciation whatsoever for the history of the sport or the league. What got me interested in hockey in the first place was the logos and the jerseys. I spent a great deal of my internet time on Sportslogos.net and NHLUniforms.com. I got called out by teachers and made fun of by classmates for drawing team logos and uniforms during class. On the rare occasion I had any reason to venture that far, I’d stop for a visit in a sports merchandise store to see the uniforms up front. The jerseys are a big deal for me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the jerseys were sacred or anything, but seeing the uniforms in action and in person was a crucial aspect of the entertainment of the game for me. Readers of this site know how important the jerseys are to me, as I posted a whole piece about my ideal designs for each team and have spent a year on and off working on a version redux since then.

Now the jerseys will have logos of soft/sports/energy/alcoholic drink, fast food chain, banking corporation, telecom company, and other logos on them that have nothing to do with the teams. Every time I watch a game I will have to see them and that will detract from the experience. I like seeing the appearance of the jerseys whenever the camera shows a close up of a player, but now I won’t be able to because the ads will be there.

One frequent argument in favour of the jersey ads is that there are ads everywhere. There are. Go to see a game in person, and there are LCD screens on the edges of the upper bowl, the vomitoria, the jumbotron, the backdrops the players on the bench and in the penalty box sit in front of and give press conferences in front of. Look on the surface of the ice, and at the boards, and you’ll see ads. Wander the concourse and you’ll see ads. Stand outside the arena and you’ll see ads shortly. You’ll see ads on the bus home, perhaps even in the cab if you go home that way. You’ll hear ads on the radio in your car on your way to and from the game. Getting a bite to eat before or after the game? You’ll probably see an ad in that process. Not only do we see commercials on TV, but now coming back from commercial breaks and during games sometimes a chyron will appear showing, you guessed it, an ad. You’ll see ads on league and team websites, as well as those related to hockey in general and that you can see hockey content on, provided you don’t have an ad blocker, and even if you do, good luck avoiding ads when actually looking at the content itself, especially if its official video. Go pick up a copy of The Hockey News or Sports Illustrated, or read the digital versions online, and you’ll see ads. Flip on a movie or TV show after the game and it probably has product placement somewhere. We are bombarded with advertising content, companies and agencies conspiring around the clock to take whatever dwindling amounts of surface area remain unblemished and plaster a gaudy corporate logo because evidently we don’t deserve to go through society without every well figuratively shouting at us to “BUY OUR SHIT! BUY OUR SHIT!” We’ve had rink-level ads for decades, but never on the jerseys, and I don’t know why that all of a sudden isn’t a good compromise.

Another argument you may have heard is that the jerseys already have ads on them. Look a New York Rangers player up and down and you’ll probably see ads for Adidas, CCM, Warrior, Easton, Bauer, and of course the New York Rangers. Yes it’s team logos and manufacturer logos. Do I even need to explain why this is stupid? Before any of you hear this argument and nod like you’ve had the wool pulled over until now, obviously there is a difference between the manufacturer of something or the brand it was manufactured for, and a corporation otherwise complete unrelated to anything paying to have their logo there. With the former, the brand logos (team crest for example) are front and centre as their the focal point of the team brand. The manufacturer logos are noticeable, but they’re designed to strike as optimal a balance as possible between being plainly visible and being unobstrusive. The Adidas logo on the back of a jersey is there, plain as day, but it’s small, either in white or a colour that’s already a part of the jersey’s palette, and it is just above the much more attention-grabbing name and jersey number of the player wearing it. By contrast, a corporate ad logo will be placed as front-and-centre as it is allowed to be and take up as much physical space as it is allowed to take up. Even more distracting is that the logos will be placed on the jerseys with no consideration for how it integrates into the jersey as a whole. We saw this with the helmet ads, such as the gigantic baby blue PPG logo on the Penguins’ helmets or the red Scotiabank logos on the Leafs’ helmets, and we’ll see it with the jersey ads. Because the goals inherent in a manufacturer logo and a sponsor logo are completely opposite. One wants to simply let you know who constructed the good, while the other wants to pull your attention away from everything else so you see their message to “BUY OUR SHIT!” To take hockey jerseys out of the equation, if I buy a t-shirt, even if it’s got a corporate logo on it, well that corporate logo is more likely than not the point. Nike shoes, Adidas t-shirts, etc. Buying a piece of clothing with a corporate logo on it, but importantly one central to the piece of clothing’s existence, is the whole reason designer fashion is even a thing. Or if I buy a Panasonic TV, I expect to see a Panasonic logo on the frame lining the screen’s edge, both so consumers in general know who manufactured it, but also so I know when I’m buying it that it’s Panasonic, as opposed to a knock-off or a brand I didn’t want to buy. But the logo still remains an innocuous little logo just underneath the centre of the screen outside my direct attention. And the channel watermarks that typically appear are small, relegated to the corner, and often transparent. The ads on the jerseys will be more akin to the ad chyrons that appear when watching TV, or if I bought a Panasonic TV and it had the Olive Garden logo burnt into the screen. Nobody wants that.

Another common argument in favour of this is that the league and teams need the money. Rest assured that I do not give a shit. I will be going on a bit of a political tangent, but please bear with me, I do have a point. Back in 2017, roughly three quarters into the first year of Donald Trumps’ term as President of the United States, it was announced that the Federal Communications Commission would be voting whether to keep the internet in the States as a Title II common carrier or make it a Title I information service. The former would make it closer to a utility that the ISPs can only provide access to, not control, a principle known as net neutrality, while the latter would allow for Internet Service Providers to “throttle” websites by reducing connection speeds to certain sites or categories of sites. The head of the FCC at the time, Ajit Pai, who was a former lawyer for Verizon, one of said ISPs, wound up as one of the three votes (all Republicans) to two in favour of the switch to Title I. The issue remains unresolved since Democrat Joe Biden took office. The ISPs support the end of net neutrality arguing it would allow for “innovation,” but with the ability to decide which sites an end user can connect to, and which one can’t, it would be easy for an ISP to make easier money by applying whatever prices they charge now for whatever reduced service package they dream up, and charge more for the freer internet service they’d had to offer under Title II. The main support for this is that the businesses would make more money, but this ceases to seem like an advantage when one realizes that the average consumer, and probably the average worker, doesn’t benefit from it because it’s just more money for the executives’ coffers. That was the specific example that made me realize that things are structured so that “company will profit more” can be used as a the justification for pretty much anything. Companies keep getting away with making things more expensive, stagnating worker salaries and reducing benefits, and neglecting responsibilities to the environment and to society and to public safety, on the basis that doing so will make the business more profitable. Getting back on track to sports, take a look at how many ownership groups through professional sports have gotten governments to literally buy them cutting edge stadia over the years, despite the extensive studies suggesting it doesn’t benefit the economy. The argument that comes up is that the owners shouldn’t put their money into the team and risk financial loss (this is also what Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said in response to criticism for not spending more on talented players to make the team competitive). Time and time again, we’re just expected to go along with it and say “yeah that’s cool” because it raises the profit margins. That is what’s going on with ads on jerseys. While, true it doesn’t have a direct effect on us, it’s something that makes things objectively worse (even if only visually) that the powers that be expect us to agree with because “they’ll make more money.” Sorry for the manifesto, but I refuse to happily go along with this flagrant display of greed, especially if the best reason anyone can come up with is “but we’re greedy.” Circling back to the point about the pandemic and financial loss, and publicly funded arenas as well, I ask: who cares if the owner will lose money on it? Nobody forced them to use their extensive resources to purchase a sports team. Why, when the prospect of financial loss comes up, should we be saddled with the negative consequences of whatever measures are employed to prop them up when they ought to be the ones to just take the hit or find a better way to recoup losses? And just remember as well, the league has cancelled a full season and a half of each of two others over money problems, so the owners should just quit whining about lost revenue and deal with it.

But perhaps the dumbest argument I’ve heard in support of the jersey ads is the potential for something else to improve. Since the announcement has been made you have probably heard one person at least talk about how great these will be if it means tickets will cost less money or at least not be made more expensive. And I mean, sure, I suppose it would be great if tickets were made cheaper as a result of allowing jersey ads, but I also think they should be cheaper without the addition of ads. But there’s a simple reason why that won’t be the case. To quote JFresh (whom you should follow), they want more money, not different money. That’s the reason that, despite saying when helmet ads became a thing that they were for one season only due to lack of fan attendance, the NHL followed that up with confirming the helmet ads were staying despite bringing back full crowds for next season. It’s not naïve, but downright moronic to think we the fans will see any benefit out of this.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines the thin end of the wedge as “the beginning of something that will become more serious, unpleasant, etc.” This is precisely what I see in the future for NHL jerseys and advertisements. Just as I figured the NHL would do after allowing helmets, they allowed jerseys. In the same way, I expect that sooner rather than later, we’ll further encroachment of ads. Maybe there will be another patch allowed in two years, maybe in four it will 4”x4.5” instead of 3x3.5”, maybe in six there’ll be another ad running along the lower torso, maybe in eight there’ll be shoulder patches, maybe in ten there’ll be a banner ad on every player’s ass. And I know retailers will be offering jerseys for sale that don’t have the ads on them, but have you seen what the ads on European jerseys? It’s gotten to the point that the jerseys have barely any design, and the actual jersey crest, the “play for the crest on the front not the name on the back” crest, isn’t even the visual focal point of the jerseys, and any semblance of striping is replaced by ads. So imagine 10, 15, maybe 20 years from now, when the jerseys have gotten to that point, and you go buy an NHL jersey. What you’ll be getting is a jersey entirely made up of one solid colour, save for maybe a shoulder yoke of some sort and the player names and numbers if you decide to spring for them, with no other colour contrasts, no striping patterns or designs or motifs, and with a logo that takes up about as much space as the jersey ads will next year. Are those jerseys going to be jerseys you want to buy? Are you going to want to have jerseys covered mostly in ads as an alternative?

The End of An Age

Anyone who has heard me talk about allowing players to use retired numbers if and when they want, or retiring the term “defenceman” from the hockey lexicon, or making the nets bigger to allow more shots to become goals and bring back 80s-era scoring numbers, will know that I don’t believe tradition to be a compelling argument not to do something, but I only believe that insofar as tradition is held up as a barrier to making things better. If the tradition itself is better, then it shouldn’t be changed. There are three traditions that I don’t thing can ever be changed for the better: the Avengers-style crossover appeal of the All-Star Game, the Stanley Cup itself, and the aesthetic quality of an unblemished NHL uniform. Not just the jersey, but the whole uniform. Even if I’m not the one wearing it and it doesn’t effect me directly, I enjoy seeing the jerseys as the players wearing them play hockey, even bad ones like the Predators 2003 mustard jerseys or the Stars’ Mooterus uniforms or the Sabres’ Buffaslug, and corporate ads will absolutely take that away. In spite of every other problem we’ve seen in the NHL, from its bad job of marketing players to 25+ years of labour strife to a lack of bold leadership to curtail the Dead Puck Era to bad refereeing, they never did anything as cynically cash-motivated as allow one of the best visual elements of the league to be taken over by advertisements. Now that’s gone. We’re on the slow march now to Euro-style skating billboards, completely disavowed of any notion of integrity on the part of those pulling the levers of power in the NHL. We’ve lost another thing that’s good to corporate greed, and it’s not a good feeling. It feels like a light has been extinguished.

I better never hear another damned word about playing for the crest on the front not the name on the back. After this move, the crest on the front means nothing.