How the NHL’s new jersey sponsorships shift the league’s landscape

Photo by Klim Musalimov on Unsplash

On Monday, Sept. 12, the Montreal Canadiens, the NHL’s most storied franchise, unveiled the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) as their jersey partner for the 2022-23 season, the first of its kind in the NHL.

The move to put the RBC crest on the Habs jersey, one viewed as one of the most iconic in professional sports, was met with widespread criticism. Despite a brief change in the 1924-25 season, the Canadiens have had more or less the exact same jersey since the 1913 season.

“I would have thought they [Canadiens] would have considered this iconic sweater to be more sacred than to tarnish it for money,” said one fan in an article for the Montreal Gazette.

Unfortunately for like-minded fans, the partnerships wouldn’t end there.

Currently, there are nine teams in the NHL that have adopted jersey patches for the upcoming season. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in the NHL media tour recently that he expects roughly half of the league to join in on the movement.

Like the Canadiens, the sponsorships for various other teams have also drawn mixed reactions.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, also elected to add a patch to their jersey, one that, despite several changes over the years, is also viewed as iconic. Though, it was more the decision for which organization would be the sponsor rather than the decision in and of itself. The Leafs jersey now features a “Milk” patch sponsored by the Dairy Farmers of Ontario.

The jokes this prompted were layups. “nothing spoils in the summer like milk,” said the Twitter personality Pete Blackburn who covers the NHL for Bally Sports, referencing the Leafs recent and numerous postseason struggles.

The Vegas Golden Knights features a “Coca Sports” jersey patch, which is at least on-brand for Sin City, in a way.

The Minnesota Wild also had some questions surrounding their jersey partnership. It came to fans’ attention that the official Adidas jerseys in their arena team store featured their TRIA Orthopedics sponsor logo. It was asked whether fans would be able to buy jerseys without the patches.

The Wild posted a note on their website saying, “On all Adidas jerseys, there will be a TRIA patch. The 3 x 3.5 patch is attached to the front right shoulder of the jersey.”

ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski later got clarification on the matter. Official NHL in-person stores will be the only place that jersey’s can be bought with the sponsor patches on them. It will be up to the discretion of individual teams whether the jersey patches will be by request only or on all Adidas jerseys. Any jersey from the NHL’s online store, however, will not have sponsor patches.

Fans are rightfully upset about the jersey patches. Many are worried that this is only the start. There are concerns that this could be the catalyst for the NHL veering towards the European hockey jersey model, which features advertisements from helmet to socks. However, this would be an unlikely and massive shift.

It is impossible to deny the financial reality that the NHL exists in right now. The NHL claims to have lost over $1 Billion USD over the course of the pandemic and went as far as to sue insurance providers over denied reimbursements. Forbes was a little less bullish in their estimate, suggesting a $720 Million USD loss. The NHL, unlike the MLB, NFL and NBA, is heavily reliant on gate receipts, and were impacted by COVID-19 to an extent that other professional leagues were not.

The jersey partnerships could stand to make individual NHL teams between $5-$10 million USD annually, a startling figure considering that some arena naming rights – typically the most expensive sponsorship proposition – often cost a similar amount. These deals could be a huge boon to the NHL’s bottom-line.

 This is particularly relevant as the salary cap, which is directly tied to Hockey Related Revenue (HRR), is expected to jump from $81.5 million to $92 million in 2025-2026. Jersey partnerships will be added to the HRR sum, joining things like merchandising and ticket sales.

Due to the pandemic, the typical 50/50 split of HRR between the players and ownership was augmented in order to properly compensate the players. That 50 per cent however, because of the NHL’s revenue shortfall, was not enough money to cover player salaries. This necessitated utilizing the league’s escrow balance, typically around 20 per cent player salaries kept in reserve used to help the NHL balance their books, had to be paid out to ensure the salaries were met.

In short, the players are in debt to the league. The jersey ads could help fix that.

It is difficult to feel sorry for a group of millionaires like the players, and almost impossible for the billionaire owners, but there is good that comes with the increased revenue.

A higher salary cap means higher salaries but it also may mean more cap flexibility for teams. That would allow for more big-name, big-money trades and more free agents switching teams, at least until player salaries inflate to match the cap. 

It could also allow some Canadian teams to offer more money to players, helping offset the impacts of the Canadian dollar and higher Canadian taxes. Once again, that would only be a short-term trend unless the NHL sees some substantial and consistent growth year after year, which is unlikely.

So, the question is, are the jersey patches worth it? The patches, unless you personally want them, will only be on the on-ice product. The NBA recently introduced jersey patches, and they are largely unobtrusive. While we have yet to see them in the regular season, unless you are looking for them, you probably won’t notice them.

For purists that won’t matter; it’s the idea of it. Jersey patches are a stain on something sacred. Baseball jerseys are t-shirts, Basketball jerseys are tank-tops and Football jerseys are jazzed-up dry-fit tops. While there are obviously beautiful and iconic jerseys in other sports, none have nearly as much room for design, as much space to tell a story.

I mean, Canada’s most famous children’s story is about the opposite passions inspired by a Habs jersey and a Leafs jersey. Would the story have been as touching if Roch Carier went into such loving detail about a bank’s crest in the upper left corner? Would those Quebecois children have felt as strong a connection to a jersey graced by the emblem of an anglophone institution?

It is not an easy situation. There is no clear black-and-white view on the jersey crests. Revenue is undoubtedly good for the health of the league, but feelings of the fans (who do give the NHL all its business after all) are both valid and important. 

There will never be a consensus. Some fan bases will feel more strongly than others for various reasons. They’re not going away either, so while we may never like them, we will eventually get used to them.

So, no matter what you feel about the jersey patches, nothing will change the fact that the Leafs’ jersey has a milk stain on it.

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