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Patrick Johnston: The time may be here for NHL to consider ads on sweaters

The Vancouver Canucks, with advertising on the boards, Zamboni and all around Rogers Arena, might be considering advertising patches for their jerseys.
The Vancouver Canucks, with advertising on the boards, Zamboni and all around Rogers Arena, might be considering advertising patches for their jerseys.

Purists will likely hate it, but with COVID-19 continuing to depress revenues across the NHL it’s getting tougher for teams to ignore the dollar signs the NBA has posted for placing small advertising patches on the upper-front of their jerseys.

NHL teams haven’t had fans in the stands since March. And it seems likely they could go well into the spring without any sizable crowds.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Yahoo! Sports earlier this week that one shouldn’t expect NBA arenas to have full crowds during the 2020-21 season . There’s no reason to think the forecast would be any different for hockey.

Between losing a dozen or so home games to close out the 2019-20 season, deriving no gate revenues in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs and now facing the prospect of having, at best, only limited crowds in 2020-21, you can see why NHL teams are looking at creative ways to build revenue.

They’ve already launched the Reverse Retro uniform program , hoping fans will look to add to their hockey sweater collection. Could ad patches on sweaters be next?

Cary Kaplan, president of sports marketing firm Cosmos Sports and Entertainment , believes the time has come.

“I’m a fan of all of that. I think people get caught up in tradition,” he said. “People didn’t like rink-board ads when they first came in. They didn’t like on-ice logos.”

Kaplan is also general manager of the ECHL’s Brampton Beast, worked for the AHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs in the past and has also consulted for several NHL teams.

“Look at the NBA’s patch. Soccer has had huge sponsorship logos forever,” he added. “The talk always is ‘we don’t want to be NASCAR’ but when you watch a hockey game, you’re seeing 40 rink-board ads at a time.”

He pointed to the NBA for what it has been able to accomplish in the initial wave of deals, which began in 2017-18.

According to a 2019 report from Sports Business Journal , NBA teams are pulling in between $5 and $20 million each , depending on their sponsorship arrangement.

The highest team total, $20 million, is the sponsorship deal the Golden State Warriors signed with online retailer Rakuten . In total the NBA’s first wave of deals were worth more than $150 million.

And after first considering the idea this summer, Major League Baseball appears to be full-steam-ahead on plans to put patches on jerseys and maybe even helmets for 2021.

Still, it’s an idea that league commissioner Gary Bettman has long opposed.

“You’d have to drag me kicking and screaming,” he said in 2015, after the NHL signed a new deal with Adidas to make the league’s uniforms.

After the NBA started its ad patch program in 2017, Bettman softened his stance somewhat, laying out what it would take for him to consider the option.

“I always said we wouldn’t be first,” he said. “OK, great. The NBA is doing it. But it would take an unusual circumstance, which I would define as ‘a lot of money that I’m having trouble comprehending right now,’ for us to even be thinking about it.”

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman pondered the idea of NHL teams finally putting small ads on their sweaters during last Friday’s edition of the 31 Thoughts podcast. He suggested it would be an idea the NHL Players’ Association should be pushing the league on in exchange for engaging in talks on how to handle the impact of shortening the 2020-21 season — which is inevitable — will have on the salary cap structures the two sides agreed to in a new collective bargaining agreement just this summer.

You’ve got to think the players would indeed be amenable to the notion.

Asked Wednesday by Postmedia News to comment on the topic, the NHLPA declined.

The Vancouver Canucks wouldn’t comment, either, but Gary Meagher, the NHL’s executive vice-president of communications, left the door slightly open.

“Ads on game sweaters is not something that has been discussed in any meaningful way to this point in time,” he said via email.

If there were to be meaningful discussions that then led to a plan to put ads on sweaters, teams could pivot quickly. In the future, they would have patches included as part of Adidas’ production, but in the short term they could add patches to their sweaters themselves.

The Canucks and other NHL teams have worn ad patches on their practice sweaters in the past. The Canucks most recently sported a patch for the Canucks for Kids Fund.

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