Over the past 10 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a lot of ugly truths about our world that many people had preferred to ignore: social and economic inequity, government incompetence, poor scientific literacy.
Oh, and the fact that professional sports leagues exist to make money.
That last one could be confounding for fans of, say the Toronto Raptors (circa 2018-2020), who might have come to believe that athletes perform their extraordinary feats simply for our pleasure and to help boost civic pride. (It would not, however, come as a surprise to fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, circa pretty much any time since 1967).
On Tuesday, the National Hockey League did a favour for fans of transparency, then, when it announced it had sold the naming rights to the four divisions it will run in the coming abbreviated season, to long-time sponsors. Say hello to the Honda NHL® West Division, the Discover NHL® Central Division and the MassMutual NHL® East Division. The all-Canadian bracket will be known as the Scotia NHL® North Division.
On the one hand, you could get wistful for the Smythe, Norris, Adams and Patrick divisions – nomenclature that honoured four of the men who helped build the NHL during the Original Six era. And the Prince of Wales and Campbell conference names held an Old World, smoke-filled backroom authenticity. But those names had been swapped out in the early nineties for generic geographic indicators, and those of us who kept banging on about the loss of history and heritage were increasingly met with awkward stares, like Blackberry users after 2014.
The announcement of the new corporatized division names came one day after a number of teams posted images on their social-media accounts of helmets adorned with sponsor logo decals. After years of resisting the push for on-uniform advertising, the league’s board of governors last month decided it would permit the sale of such corporate branding this year to help shore up finances while fans are barred from attending games in person. According to Sports Business Journal, the entertainment and sports marketing analytics firm Navigate believes the move could bring in an average of $2.5-million (U.S.) a team: Not much, but every Band-Aid helps when you’re bleeding all over the carpet.
If you’re a hockey fan who sees the same four or five ads on high repeat during NHL broadcasts, like the endlessly scrolling background of a Flintstones cartoon, and begins to think that represents the totality of large corporations in this country – well, it’s going to be a long season.
The Montreal Canadiens, who play at the Bell Centre (a.k.a. Centre Bell), will wear Bell logos on their helmets. Likewise, the Winnipeg Jets, who play at Bell MTS Place, are expected to wear Bell logos. The Edmonton Oilers, who play at Rogers Place, will wear Rogers logos.
Both the Calgary Flames, whose home arena is the Scotiabank Saddledome, and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who play out of the Scotiabank Arena, will be sporting Scotiabank logos on their helmets, which makes you wonder: How long it will be before the bank finally decides to make things official, buys a ring for each of the teams, takes them to the altar and we get to cheer for the Calgary Scotia Flames and the Toronto Scotia Leafs?
(If the NHL ever puts a team in Nova Scotia, all hell breaks loose as the country gets sucked into an Inception-style Scotia-branded branding black hole.)
When the news about the helmet ads broke last month, many fans suggested the league was headed down the slippery slope that will, they feared, end with European style head-to-toe-logoed uniforms.
That seems unlikely: In late 2014, John Collins, the league’s chief operating officer, said in an interview that jersey sponsorship was “coming and happening.” After all, the other North American pro leagues were moving in that direction. But by the end of 2015, Collins was gone and the league was still prevaricating.
In fact, in January, 2017, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said during an interview during all-star weekend – sorry, I mean Honda NHL® All-Star Weekend, held at the Staples Center in Los Angeles – “it would take an unusual circumstance – which I would define as a lot of money that I’m having trouble comprehending right now – for us to even be thinking about it.”
Over the past year, it would seem reasonable if Bettman had altered his definition of “unusual circumstance” to include ‘global pandemic that straddles (at least) two hockey seasons.’ But he hasn’t – though that may be as much an indication of how many other, more pressing, issues the league has been contending with (“Theresa Tam is on line one, Mr. Bettman.”) than its ethical or aesthetic concerns about selling the real estate on its players’ backs.
For the moment, it’s hard to know what Honda, Discover, MassMutual and Scotiabank believe they’re buying with the divisional naming sponsorships. Unlike, say, the names of arenas, which people need to actually remember and pronounce if they’re going to meet a friend for the game, no one is going to say in casual conversation, “Dude, what do you think the Bruins’ chances of winning the MassMutual NHL® East Division are this year?” (Though I’d love to hear them pronounce the ®.)
Still, it’s hard to not wonder whether this all amounts to another turn of the dystopian screw, bringing us closer to a world in which all interactions are overseen and/or sponsored by corporations. In the 1975 James Caan drama, Rollerball, teams of roller-skating combatants line up in their thin armour and listen, grim-faced, to the brooding orchestral anthem of the league’s corporate sponsor.
We haven’t gotten there yet. But be honest: You can see it, can’t you?