Good news for hockey purists who believe advertising logos have no place on NHL sweaters: In announcing a new corporate sponsorship that makes Adidas the NHL's official on-ice uniform provider, commissioner Gary Bettman repeatedly insisted on Tuesday the league had no interest in selling space on its jerseys to advertisers, contradicting a rumour that has been circulating for a month or more.
"There have been some suggesting this deal means it is inevitable there'll be advertising on uniforms – and that's just not true," Bettman said on a conference call with reporters.
Under terms of the new seven-year agreement, Adidas will replace Reebok as the NHL's jersey manufacturer for the start of the 2017-18 season, coinciding with the league's centennial.
Separately, Adidas will also supply the uniforms for the 2016 World Cup of hockey, to be played next September.
The new arrangement isn't much of a corporate shift, given that Reebok and hockey equipment manufacturer CCM are subsidiaries of Adidas.
According to Mark King, president of Adidas's North American operations, the Reebok brand "made a pivot in 2010 out of sport and into fitness. For us, this is a real opportunity to put the brands in sync, Reebok focusing on things … that directly relate to the fitness category. Adidas is about sport – the games we play that the fans love to watch."
Recently, the Reebok division signed teenage sensation Connor McDavid to an exclusive promotional contract, and King indicated there'd be more signings of NHL stars in the weeks ahead.
Sidney Crosby, P.K. Subban and others are reportedly in talks to become the faces and voices of Adidas's ramped up hockey marketing plans.
The NHL believes Adidas's brand awareness in Europe meshes perfectly with its goal of growing the league's marketing reach worldwide. Adidas is steeped in the soccer tradition, where advertising on jerseys is commonplace, though there was a backlash in the early stages of that, too.
Thus far, it is a revenue stream that major North American professional sports teams have so far been able to resist.
"We are not currently considering putting advertising on NHL jerseys," said Bettman. "There have been no discussions, formally or informally, with anyone about doing that."
Sometimes, of course, the term "not currently" can be corporate speak for "you can be sure we'll be thinking about it eventually." But it's difficult to imagine that happening on Bettman's watch, however long it lasts. As someone who joined the NHL from the NBA more than 20 years ago as an outsider, Bettman has always gone out of his way to respect the traditions of hockey.
Moreover, Bettman ultimately works for the owners and suggested the vast majority of them want to maintain the status quo, when it comes to keeping ads off jerseys.
"It goes to the respect we have for the history and tradition of our game, and the reverence our fans have for our sweaters and our game," said Bettman. "Our sweaters, among all the other sports, are I think iconic, which is why I've previously been quoted as saying, 'we certainly won't be the first' and you'd probably have to drag me, kicking and screaming [to do it], which would take a lot – a lot, a lot – of money."
Depending on the fortunes of the slumping Canadian dollar, generating new revenues going forward could be problematic for the NHL. Under the current collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap is tied to overall revenues, which unexpectedly flattened last year, largely because of currency issues. If the Canadian dollar doesn't rebound soon, the salary cap won't go up much either, which in turn curtails the amount teams spend on player salaries.
"Our owners are always interested in new revenue opportunities, and so are the players, but I don't think there are people sitting out there thinking, because the Canadian dollar has declined against the U.S. dollar, that we should go out there and license uniforms," said Bettman.
Donald Fehr, executive director of the NHL players association, did not rule out the possibility of advertising finding its way onto World Cup jerseys next fall, however, noting that the tournament "gives us an opportunity for some experimentation – an opportunity, if we want to, to try different things."
"From a players' standpoint," he added, "my obligation is to explore all avenues and then make some judgments."