Photo Credit: Mackenzie Gerry
As the new hockey season begins to unfold, the NHL’s 2020-21 season will arguably diverge further from the norm than any of their counterparts. The NBA and NFL made small tweaks to their 2020-21 seasons; the NBA is playing 10 fewer games while the NFL added two extra playoff teams. However, the NHL has seemed to follow MLB’s example in making drastic changes to their usual format.
Four new exclusive divisions were created, divided by geography and will see each team play (or at least try to play) a 56-game schedule. One other addition that is new to the league is the integration of sponsorship ads replacing the team logo on every helmet. Much like how the NBA has had an ad-patch on their jerseys for several years now, the NHL made the leap this season, much to the chagrin of their fans.
“It’s 100 per cent driven by the pandemic,” said Dr. Michael Naraine, an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Brock University, who specializes in sport sponsorship and digital marketing. “[The NHL] is able to sell the story of, ‘yes, it’s because of gate revenue losses, so to offset that, these sponsorships will help.’ They’re using the pandemic as cover to allow some of these things.”
“The first thing we have to recognize is that these ideas weren’t new,” said Dr. Naraine. “They’ve been thinking about this for some time, but the issue with sponsorship — particularly in North America — is that consumers are very sensitive, so it was more the sensitivity of the marketplace that NHL teams and specifically the league were just unsure of whether or not they would be able to do it without upsetting the consumers. In order to grow the business, you have to think about some of these new ideas, but you can’t do it all at once because the consumer might be too sensitive to it and might actively get ticked off.”
Over time, Dr. Naraine says fans and viewers will become desensitized to the on-player advertisements and will accept what is sure to be the new normal in not only the NHL, but in all of professional sports.
“We see it in the NBA, now we see it in the NHL and we’re going to see it in the NFL as well,” said Dr. Naraine. “Look at the L.A. Rams jerseys. On their home jerseys it says, ‘Los Angeles Rams’ almost like a patch. They’re setting that up for next year and the year after so they can have a brand posted there. So once people in L.A. go, ‘okay I guess this is the new normal’, then you’re going to see all the other NFL teams come out with ad patches.”
The MLB has not yet implemented on-player ads on a full time basis, but they did experiment with both batting helmet and sleeve ads when the Yankees and Red Sox played a series in London, England in 2019.
“If I’m a betting man, I’d say [MLB] will introduce ads this season,” said Dr. Naraine. “They have 162 games on the schedule with no fans, or very limited fans, so to recoup those losses they’ll probably either add a patch on the sleeve, and/or they’ll add something to the batting helmets, again using the pandemic as cover. The takeaway though is when the pandemic is over and people are returned back to arenas, they’re not going to take the ads away. Once you see these ads introduced, they’re going to stay, they’re never going to go back. The pandemic was really an opportunity to bring something in that leagues had been thinking about for a long time.”
Even though on-player sponsorships aren’t new to major North American professional sports, as the NBA started the trend in 2017-18, one unique thing about the NHL’s helmet ads is that teams have the option to have multiple sponsors, namely one home helmet sponsor and one road. Many teams that have just one helmet sponsor are the same company who sponsor that team’s arena, like the Leafs with Scotiabank or the Canadiens with Bell. Even some teams who have two sponsors like the Ottawa Senators ensured that one of them is their home arena sponsor.
“The predominant reason why teams have their home arena sponsor on the helmets is because of that, they’re the home arena sponsor,” said Dr. Naraine. “You really want to build on those existing relationships you have. For example, Scotiabank, the reason why they’d want to do it is because the value they have for naming the arena is not there because you don’t have 18,000 people coming into Scotiabank Arena every night. So to offset that, now you’ll have 800,000 people on TV seeing Scotiabank more often as opposed to 18,000 people walking around the arena and seeing the Scotiabank logo everywhere.”
There’s a clear correlation between smaller market teams and the number of sponsors they have. Virtually all of the big-time NHL markets — Toronto, Montreal, Boston, Los Angeles, New York — have one universal sponsor, while smaller market teams like Florida, Columbus or Buffalo, have opted for two.
“For teams like the Florida Panthers or the Arizona Coyotes, in their situation, they’re in tougher markets — it’s harder for them to get sponsorships generally — so when they went back to they’re home arena sponsor, the [sponsor] probably said, ‘no, our money is already tied up with the arena’ so the Panthers had to look at alternative options,” said Dr. Naraine. “It was a way to bring in a brand new sponsor who might be looking to get some value at the price point the Panthers were looking at. It’s also possible that the home sponsor said, ‘sure, we’ll do it, but only at this price point’ and the Panthers said, ‘no, we want to maximize value.’”
Much like the now infamous photo of Arizona Cardinals star receiver DeAndre Hopkins making an incredible catch surrounded by three Bills defenders, which conveniently lent itself to Nike and Jordan as a free commercial, the value that these on-player sponsorships offer is unparalleled.
“When you see Morgan Rielly hugging John Tavares at the end of the game and that’s the Instagram photo, that’s the image being shared on social media and SportsCentre, there’s significant value to that in terms of maximizing exposure for the brand,” said Dr. Naraine. “Naming rights for the building, super important, but some of these new things, like jersey patches, helmet ads, those are the next generation of sponsorship because when you see them on Instagram and on TV, those are the ads that are going to show up.”