Timothy Dewhirst is an associate professor in the department of marketing and consumer studies at the University of Guelph. He is currently a visiting scholar (adjunct professor) at South Korea's Hanyang University.
National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman has acknowledged that the World Cup of Hockey, being played in Toronto from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1, provides an opportunity to showcase and test-market a number of initiatives, among them sponsorship advertising on jerseys.
The ads will be placed on jersey shoulders during the league-sanctioned tournament. Many would have expected to see the brands of Tim Hortons, Canadian Tire or Molson Canadian, given that they have patriotic associations in Canada and are already NHL corporate marketing partners. But it was announced last month that SAP, the multinational software company and itself an NHL corporate marketing partner, will be the sponsorship advertiser for all the competing teams, ranging from Canada to Russia to Team Europe. There has been widespread speculation about the adoption of sponsorship advertising on the jerseys of actual NHL franchises. League chief operating officer John Collins made statements in 2014 suggesting that such ads were inevitable.
The National Basketball Association has already taken steps toward jersey ads, placing Kia logos on uniforms at the 2016 All-Star Game in Toronto. Philadelphia 76ers jerseys will feature ads for StubHub during regular-season games as of 2017-18.
Jersey advertising is more commonplace internationally, notably in Europe's professional hockey and soccer leagues. Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United jerseys already feature advertising prominently.
In South Korea's professional baseball league, known as the KBO League, teams are identified by their corporate owner rather than the city where they're based. The league's teams include the Samsung Lions, the LG Twins and the Kia Tigers. The NHL game experience has already become quite commercialized. Older fans will recall watching games when there was no advertising on the rink boards or ice surface. Footage of games without such ads now looks almost foreign.
The NHL Players' Association, the players' union, is likely to have an appetite for jersey advertising given its revenue potential.
There will be a challenge, however, when it comes to ambush marketing and conflicts between jersey advertisers and the brands endorsed by individual players. Sidney Crosby, who endorses CCM-Reebok, was wearing a jersey with a Nike swoosh when he scored his "golden goal" at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Nike is a corporate partner and uniform supplier for Hockey Canada.
Complications arise with so many tiers of sponsorship ads. Bank of Nova Scotia is a Canadian corporate marketing partner of the NHL, whereas Royal Bank of Canada is a premier marketing partner of Hockey Canada. Further, a player may be endorsing and representing another competing financial institution.
The NHL would likely develop a policy that disallows teams from securing jersey ads for brands that are direct competitors of the league's lengthy list of corporate marketing partners.
The NHL would also be wise to consider its fans important stakeholders in such matters. Polls have indicated strong resistance to jersey ads – for some fans, a hockey sweater is an honourable, even sacred, garment. If the placement of corporate sponsors on a Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens uniform is seen to tarnish a team brand, there might well be questions about how it looks on jerseys representing an entire nation at the World Cup.