Written By: Crina Mustafa
When the Montreal Canadiens open their season October 11 against the Maple Leafs in Toronto, both of the National Hockey League’s decorated Original 6 teams will have corporate sponsorships adorned on their iconic jerseys.
Nick Suzuki and the Habs’ sweater will feature an RBC patch, prominently displayed on the right side above the legendary team logo. Auston Matthews’ Leafs jersey will advertise Milk in the same place on the Toronto uniform. Both teams are in their own decades-long Stanley Cup droughts, but, according to Yahoo, each NHL team is netting an additional $5-$10 million a year for a jersey ad.
Last season, the NHL introduced corporate advertisements on team jerseys. Immediately, hockey fans began using words like “invasive” for how these patches made their way onto historic team jerseys. Going beyond the patch itself, however, uncovers many new opportunities in the business of sports.
“I'm surprised that it didn't happen sooner,” says Robbie Middlestadt, a Marketing Operations Associate at theScore. Middlestadt has worked in sports marketing for several years and believes this benefits the teams and the brands that work with them.
Other major North American sports leagues have been using corporate ad patches on their jerseys for years. The NBA began doing this in the 2017-2018 season, and it was so successful that Boardroom.TV projected the value from these partnerships to pass $225 million USD in the 2021-2022 season. The WNBA began using advertisements on their jerseys in 2019, and both leagues continue to sell ad space on game jerseys this year and for the foreseeable future.
Per Yahoo, the NHL is projected to make over $100 million USD in revenue with this new jersey patch program. This is massive for the league because the NHL ranks last of the four major men’s leagues (MLB, NFL, NBA) in terms of revenue generated. The more revenue the league brings in, the further the salary cap escalates, and the more the players get paid. Additionally, the visibility of the league grows as more and more corporate sponsors include NHL incentivizing in their own promotions.
Ailish Forfar is a former hockey player and now works in the media, covering the NHL and women’s hockey. Forfar has two interesting perspectives on corporate ad partnerships: one as a player and one as a media member.
“I was a professional women's hockey player, and we would kill to have had a sponsor. We would've killed to have had somebody want to invest in our team to put a logo on our jersey,” she said. Forfar has had a lot of experience playing hockey at a high level, playing three seasons with Dartmouth College in the NCAA and a year in the CWHL as the 9th overall draft pick before the league folded.
Since she wasn’t making much money as a professional athlete, Forfar understands the importance of the money that partnerships like advertisement jersey patches can bring. Pushing that further, while they bring in money, how effective is that form of advertising?
Both Middlestadt and Forfar believe that who is partnering with specific NHL teams is more critical than if these companies can get fans to use their product or services. For instance, the Maple Leafs partnered with Milk on their jerseys, which Middlestadt believes could target a younger audience. The same goes for the Leafs’ partnership with TikTok, which sees the Chinese social media giant’s logo plastered on players’ in-game helmets.
“One thing that [sports marketers] think about is: how do we do it in a natural way that connects with a multitude of people?” said Middlestadt.
When feedback like “invasive” is used by fans, marketers continue to dream up ways to incorporate advertisements unobtrusively. Over time, ad patches on jerseys will become normalized. Fans’ enjoyment of the game is unlikely to falter. Leagues like the NHL will continue to search for more ways to increase revenue streams and maximize their growth while maintaining the iconic look and feel of their team uniforms. Sharing their gear’s real estate with sponsors more than happy to pay to be on the ice with the players will soon feel like a small score.