Will the battle over ads on sports jerseys turn out to be as lopsided and inevitable as the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846, or the Spanish-American War? We hope not.
Last week the National Basketball Association announced it will allow its teams to sell one corporate logo on the front of their uniforms, beginning with the 2017-18 season. The move has drawn plenty of criticism from sports purists upset at the adulteration of their favourite teams’ jerseys—one of the last vestiges of ad-free space left in sports. NBA commissioner Adam Silver dismissed all this as antique sentimentality. “It is the manifest destiny of sports to move toward more of this kind [of ad sales],” he grandly declared. Manifest destiny, by the way, refers to the 19th-century American expansionist movement that saw the country lay claim to our entire continent and effortlessly invade Mexico, Cuba and the Philippines. If hockey fans wish to defend their home teams’ jerseys from incursion by foreign powers, now is the time to fight back.
Around the world it’s commonplace for professional sports teams to sell advertising room on their jerseys, and to great profit. Manchester United of the English Premier League of soccer, for example, recently signed an $84-million-a-year deal with Chevrolet to put its logo on the front of their kit. Here in North America, many other leagues have adopted the practice as well. Canadian Football League jerseys are peppered with ads. As are the fields they play on. The same goes for professional soccer, lacrosse, car racing and women’s basketball. Until now, however, the four major North American sports leagues (NBA, National Football League, National Hockey League and Major League Baseball) have protected the sanctity of their uniforms from this sort of corporate encroachment, aside from small logos identifying the jersey manufacturer.
With professional basketball finally giving in to temptation—Silver figures the NBA will earn up to $100 million a year from the ads—there’s good reason to believe the other major sports leagues will follow. Expect hockey to be next. The NHL has been studying this concept nearly as long as the NBA. As with basketball, it already allows ads on teams’ practice jerseys. And it plans to sell ads on uniforms worn in the World Cup of Hockey, to be held this September in Toronto. When asked about the issue in the past, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has cryptically explained his league “wouldn’t be the first” to adopt jersey ads. Now that basketball has obligingly gone ahead, the path seems clear. Despite Silver’s claim of manifest destiny, however, there’s good reason to push back against this rising tide of corporate logos.
Once upon a time the rink boards at NHL arenas were a pristine white, save for the scuff marks from pucks and hard checks. Now they’re festooned with ads. As are the walls behind player benches and penalty boxes. Even the ice surface itself has become part of the advertising landscape. As such, it may not appear such a great leap for those ads to migrate from ice to jersey. Yet there’s something special and ineffable about jerseys and their effect on fans that seems categorically different from arena boards. (Even if we’d prefer the boards were still ad-free as well.) In our era of free agency and rapidly changing lineups, fans now feel a stronger connection to the tradition and “brand” of the uniform than they do to the players who happen to be wearing it at any particular moment. If the entire roster of the Montreal Canadiens was traded, man-for-man, to the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, each city’s fans would dutifully cheer for their teams’ colours next season. The jersey is all a dedicated fan has left to worship. As for the danger of eroding that connection, consider the cacophony of tacky ads and labels that comprise the typical jersey in the professional hockey leagues of Europe—and compare the vast differences in fan devotion across continents.
This magazine is certainly not opposed to advertising, or corporate sponsorship in general. But there are times when ads get in the way of the personal relationship enjoyed by dedicated fans. As with the rest of modern life, there’s no shortage of advertising opportunities in sports. Surely there’s room to carve out some respite from corporate messaging in the name of tradition and fan loyalty.
“An NHL uniform is a sacred thing and it’s an honour to wear one,” Winnipeg Jets right winger Blake Wheeler tweeted last year when this issue last resurfaced. “Putting corporate sponsors on the front would tarnish that. Don’t do it.”
It’s often said that in Canada, hockey is the closest thing we have to state religion. If so, let’s follow Wheeler’s advice and keep those jerseys sacred.