The NHL's Chief Operating Officer, John Collins, created quite a stir when he proclaimed that jersey sponsorship is "coming and happening." Putting advertisements on jerseys is an incredibly controversial subject that many sports fans take seriously. Professional sports is already flooded with corporatism. Numerous sports buildings are named after companies. Advertisements line stadiums and arenas. Commercial breaks are frequent. Every other event - power plays, pitching changes, booth reviews, etc. - is sponsored in some respect. The MLB couldn't even give out an MVP trophy without a lengthy, rambling Chevrolet pitch. In hockey, advertisements were first placed on the boards in the 1980s, while the ice itself got its first taste of it in the 1990s. The hockey sweater, at least in North America, is the last of the unscathed. In a sport flooded with advertising, jerseys are pure and respecting of history. And so hockey fans cling to its cleanliness, pleading the NHL to spare it from being tarnished.
It was later brought to light that the hysteria was, in part, due to poor understanding of context; Collins was talking about North American hockey in general, and not specifically the NHL. Nonetheless, it's only a delaying of the inevitable. Advertising might start in the lower levels, but they will serve as a middleman. A testing ground, of sorts. The NHL loves to make minor leagues serve as a laboratory for all of its ideas. The trapezoid was first tried in the American Hockey League before the NHL adapted it, and they are currently trying out three-on-three overtime. The NHL also introduced Rule 9.5 into the official rulebook, which makes the tucking of jerseys illegal. Something which many have speculated might be a proactive step in ensuring nothing on the jersey where conveniently placed advertisements might eventually be located is hidden from view. In any case, it's clear that the NHL's plan is to slowly let the concept of jersey advertising trickle in. It's inescapable, and we're helpless in watching it unfold.
As much as we propagate legacy and antiquity in hockey, and it's certainly there, tradition and history are even more evident and pronounced in soccer. Soccer is the ultimate grassroots sport. The oldest professional soccer team in the world is Sheffield F.C., founded in 1857. The "youngest" teams in the Barclay's (hey, a sponsor) English Premier League is Swansea, formed in 1912. For context, the Montreal Canadiens were formed only three years earlier. In other countries, Barcelona and Real Madrid were formed at the turn of the 20th century. The same holds true for AC Milan, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Dortmund, Santos, River Plate, and so on. With a few exceptions, even relatively new soccer teams were formed prior to the most historic NHL teams.
And yet, jersey sponsorship infiltrated soccer a long time ago. The first official jersey sponsorship deal on record was between Jägermeister and Eintracht Braunschweig in 1973. Despite a lot of controversy surrounding the move, it eventually subsided. In 1977, after a tug-of-war with federation officials, English teams were permitted by the FA to have jersey sponsorships.
Where there once was major pushback on jersey sponsorship in soccer, attitudes are now, at worst, sarcastically indifferent, to at best, highly championed. Bigger sponsorship deals mean more money clubs earning more money. A recent study found that jersey sponsorships have increased soccer revenues in some of the top soccer countries by 18%. More revenues, of course, mean more money to spend on acquiring new players, improving training facilities, and overall improving the club as a whole. Manchester United signed a record jersey sponsorship deal with Chevrolet this past summer, and it's no coincidence that they also spent more money on player acquisitions than ever before. Thus, improved sponsorship deals are now usually celebrated by supporters. Even I, despite being completely self-aware of what is going on, have let myself get completely swept up in the financial implications. The New York area's team in MLS, previously named the Metrostars, was bought by Red Bull in 2006. Now, not only is the jersey a not-so-subliminal advertisement for Red Bull products, but the team itself is called "Red Bull New York." As a supporter of the team, I've amazingly managed to invoke mental gymnastics to blow off the blatant cognitive dissonance I'm faced with. Hey, maybe the jersey looks like a can of Red Bull, but they're able and willing to pay Thierry Henry a lot of money to play here! Maybe the team's crest is soccer-themed Red Bull logo, but they built a beautiful new stadium! And they've dramatically improved the team's academies! The ends justify the means!
That same cognitive dissonance is going to affect hockey fans as well, when the time comes. The increased revenues will appease Rangers and Maple Leafs fans when it directly results in a higher salary cap ceiling. Columbus Blue Jackets fans will have less resentment if if the cash influx makes locking up Ryan Johansen for the rest of his career a lot easier. Panthers and Coyotes fans will have a hard time complaining if their owners are now able to manage debts and can keep their teams in Florida and Arizona respectively a while longer.
The English team I support (thanks to Tim Howard, who started his career with the Metrostars) is Everton, who have been around since 1878 and who, perhaps more than most other teams, relishes its history. The team's jersey sponsor has been Chang Beer since 2004.
In a recent Europa League game against Lille OSC in France, Everton were forced to wear jerseys without the Chang sponsor on it because alcohol advertising is illegal in France. Thus, Everton had to wear "blank" jerseys. Here was the result. On one hand, I think it looks great and wish it always looked like that. On the other hand, I realized that, even if I liked the look, it didn't feel "right." The elephants the and the word "Chang" had been on the jersey for so long that I had gotten used to it. It became the default "look" for Everton, and it became ingrained into my expectations for the jersey. The Chang logo is no longer purely a sponsor plastered on the jersey. I've subconsciously accepted that it has become part of the jersey itself.
That's exactly what the owners and NHL executives will be banking on. I'm sure that advertisements on the boards and the ice were met with a lot of backlash and initially stuck out like a sore thumb. Now, they've become part of the arena scenery.The NHL is fully willing to endure a few years of tough questions and protests from fans and media in hopes that that Pizza Hut logo below Sidney Crosby's "87" and that Best Buy logo on Henrik Lundqvist's shoulder will too eventually be assimilated into the jersey's "design." You're going to get excited and buy the newest Winter Classic jersey even with its corporate ornaments. You're going to rush to buy a jersey of that elite player your team acquired at the trade deadline or of that generational talent your team just drafted first overall. And if not, then you're probably going hold your nose and continue watching, anyway. It's going to be cynical. It's going to be horrible.
And it's going to happen anyway.