Reposted from the Toronto Star without permission (this is a hella long read, but worth it):
It's been 81 years since the Toronto Maple Leafs were given their name by Conn Smythe, a former fighter pilot who bought the team after his return from World War I, and most sports fans would agree few NHL franchises are as steeped in tradition.
That said, the Maple Leafs' owners have hardly been loath to tinker with the club's familiar, blue and white game sweater. It has been changed no fewer than 10 times since the Toronto St. Patricks were renamed the Maple Leafs in early 1927. Stripes on sleeves, shoulders and waist have been added and removed, and the Leafs' distinctive logo has been revamped at least three times.
Now a group of influential NHL players that includes New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, Dallas's Marty Turco, Detroit's Dominik Hasek and Edmonton's Dwayne Roloson want the league's – and inevitably the Leafs' – uniforms altered again. In what would be a radical overhaul that might incite hockey traditionalists but surely gratify some of the league's cash-strapped owners, several NHL goalies have asked the league and its players union to consider starting a so-called Goaltender's Club. Revenue-generating initiatives for the club could include placing a corporate logo on the jerseys of the league's 60-odd goalies.
The players are working alongside prominent hockey marketer Brad Robins and Edmonton player agent Ritch Winter. Robins and Winter estimate on-uniform ads might generate upwards of $30 million a season for the NHL. Robins has already briefed Gary Bettman on the concept, though it's uncertain whether the NHL commissioner has endorsed the idea.
A copy of the goaltender's club proposal, obtained by the Star, shows corporate presence on a jersey could range from subtle to more invasive.
One proposal shows Roloson's blue and orange team jersey with a small Rexall logo above the Oilers symbol. The drugstore chain's symbol could also be "sublimated (dyed right into the fabric) on a portion of the sleeve." A second proposal depicts Brodeur's Red Devils jersey. The team's NJ on the chest is positioned above a large tag for the bank UBS and adjacent to an RBC logo. Bank Morgan Stanley's symbol could be featured on the goalie's sleeves and shoulders.
A third proposal shows Detroit goalie Hasek's red jersey, again with the Red Wings' logo front and centre above the larger symbol of insurance company AIG. The company's logo could also be displayed on the sleeves and on the bottom of the jersey's back. The presentation also suggests goalies be allowed to choose the jersey's colour and depicts Hasek's in black, blue, green and white styles.
While the prospect of a company's logo or slogan adjacent to the Maple Leaf and other NHL logos would no doubt have been dismissed out of hand years ago, the timing for such a pitch may never be better. In the wake of a crippling lockout that scuttled the 2004-05 season, the NHL is desperate to make money. The league's 30 teams earn just a few million dollars apiece from its national TV contract with U.S. broadcaster Versus, and while the league has been aggressive with its Internet ventures, the money to show for it has been slow to materialize. Clubs like the Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators and Atlanta Thrashers are hemorrhaging money – one investment banker who specializes in pro sports says the Coyotes have lost as much as $30 million (U.S.) a year in recent seasons.
"It's low-hanging fruit," Robins says of logos on jerseys. "Advertisers would definitely be interested, and the goalie is the most visible player on the ice. You see the goalie on a broadcast at least 65 per cent of the time, pretty much on every replay, whether it's a goal or a great save."
Winter has already been involved with one effort to narrow the gap between uniforms and ads. When he represented goalie Grant Fuhr, then with the Edmonton Oilers, Winter reached an agreement for Fuhr to receive $50,000 from soft-drink maker Pepsi in exchange for wearing a pair of pads that had been fashioned to resemble a blue, red and white Pepsi can in the 1989 All-Star Game.
Former NHL president John Ziegler scotched that effort.
As to the prospect of hockey traditionalists bristling over ads on uniforms nowadays, veteran Anaheim Ducks defenceman Mathieu Schneider, who's worked on marketing issues on behalf of the NHL Players' Association, says: "We've changed the uniforms so much already over the years. It's not that far a stretch."
Roloson echoes that sentiment. "I think it's a great way to grow (hockey-related revenue). They have (uniform ads) in Europe and it doesn't take away from the true jersey look." (No, they just look like hockey on acid, and make the game a lot harder to follow what with all the distractions.)
The Oilers goalie shrugs off the prospect of criticism from traditionalists, who, he says, will "freak out" even more if the NHL makes the goalie nets bigger, something Roloson expects to happen. "And we have advertising on the boards, don't we?"
Hollywood heavyweight Jerry Bruckheimer, creator of the popular CSI TV series and a man who's lobbying the NHL for an expansion team in Las Vegas, would also seem to be a supporter. During the NHL's recent All-Star Game in Atlanta, he spoke at length at an NHL party about ideas that could reinvigorate the game in the U.S., says a person familiar with the matter. Bruckheimer's suggestions included giving NHL players licence to individualize a portion of their helmets with artwork or other material – perhaps even corporate logos – and prompting them to remove their helmets during shootouts.
Moreover, many NHL players are acquainted with the notion of advertising on uniforms. The minor-league American Hockey League's 29 clubs all have the ability to sell a small advertising patch on their jerseys. The Toronto Marlies, for instance, have an ad for McDonald's near the collars of their uniforms.
And in professional leagues throughout Europe, player uniforms are covered in ads. When former Leafs star Doug Gilmour played in Rapperswil, Switzerland, during the 1994-95 lockout, he was reportedly asked by his team to put advertising stickers on the shaft of his hockey stick. And once, when he skated out for a pre-game warm-up, a team trainer told him to adjust his socks to make a sponsor's logo more prominent.
Whether it's changing uniforms, granting an expansion franchise to a movie producer (which the NHL did in 1992 when it awarded the Mighty Ducks to the Walt Disney Co.) or introducing advertising on rink boards or even on the ice, the NHL, like other pro sports leagues, often has a short memory for tradition if it means finding new sources of income.
The introduction of ads on arena rink boards in the late 1970s was a turning point for the NHL's ties to corporate North America, say several sports-sponsorship experts.
Some 55 years after the six hockey teams banded together to create the NHL, in 1972 The Gillette Co. wanted to build awareness for its new, twin-blade razor, the Trac 2. Gillette agreed to pay about $10,000 to place a five-metre-wide ad on the boards at centre ice in the Moscow arena where Paul Henderson and Team Canada would make history against their Soviet rivals. More than 10 million viewers tuned in to Game 8 of the series, making it one of the top-rated broadcasts in Canadian history, and making Gillette's purchase one of the marketing industry's most prescient.
It wasn't long before NHL owners were debating whether they should follow suit. The Minnesota North Stars were the first franchise to debut rink board ads. The team sold eight pairs at $3,000 a pair. Throughout the 1980s, more ads on rink boards began to sprout in NHL arenas.
Not everyone embraced the idea. In 1980, CBS televised a hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York and refused to show any of the rink-board ads. Whenever players skated near the ads, the camera focused on the players' skates, gambling the puck would appear in the picture.
"The network figured if there was going to be advertising, it wanted a part of that revenue," says Jim Spence, a former senior vice-president with ABC Sports. "They eventually backed down, but I figure you'd see the same concern today if there were ads on uniforms."
At first glance, it seems the NHL has done an admirable job of selling its product since a crippling lockout led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
The league's overall revenue this season is estimated to be as much as $2.56 billion (U.S.), 10 per cent more than last year's $2.31 billion and 22 per cent more than the $2.1 billion generated in 2005-06, the first season played under the current labour contract.
Yet some hockey industry executives are skeptical about whether the NHL can take credit for all of its revenue increase.
Consider that while just six of the NHL's 30 teams are based in Canada, they account for close to one-third of the league's overall revenue. And since September 2005 alone, the Canadian dollar has surged some 19 per cent in value, from 83.9 cents U.S. to parity. The loonie's climb may be responsible for as much as half of the league's revenue gains since the lockout, says one source familiar with NHL finances.
A high-ranking league source says the secret to increasing revenue – aside from counting on the advancing Canadian dollar – has been boosting the box office. The NHL attracted an average of 17,043 fans a game through its first 726 games this season, up 2 per cent from 16,721 over the same period a year ago, the trade publication Sports Business Daily reported last month.
At the same time, it's rarely been more expensive to attend an NHL game. The average NHL ticket this season costs $48.72, up 7.7 per cent from last year, while the average luxury-box ticket costs $112.10, a 17-per-cent increase, according to Team Marketing Report, a company that tracks ticket prices in pro sports.
Since 2005-06, the first season following the lockout, the NHL's average ticket price has climbed 18 per cent, and the average luxury-box ticket is 29-per-cent more expensive. (In Toronto, the Leafs' average ticket is a league-high of $88.32, up an astounding 79 per cent from $49.23 in 2005-06, according to Team Marketing Report.)
"If it wasn't for the Canadian dollar and our teams increasing ticket prices, we wouldn't be making a cent more now than we did coming out of the lockout," says one NHL team executive.
There are also subtle ways to spur revenue. A year ago, the NHL ordered rink-board ads, which sell for as much as $600,000 a pair for a season, to be reduced in width from 3.6 to 3.2 metres, so the league could squeeze more ads in rinks, says Toronto sports marketer Bob Stellick, a former Maple Leafs marketing executive.
An NHL spokesperson said the league would not comment on its marketing efforts if the Star wrote "a story that is set against a backdrop of league revenues, with the financials coming from sources other than the league."
To be sure, the NHL is far from the first league to face challenges and criticism as it builds closer ties to its corporate supporters. In 1998, organizers of the Rose Bowl began selling naming rights to the historic college football game when it struck a deal with AT&T. And NASCAR has turned itself into a marketing juggernaut thanks to its racing teams' seamless ties to team sponsors.
Even on-uniform ads have become more commonplace. On Jan. 24, 1976, at a soccer stadium in the middle-class English city of Kettering, an otherwise unremarkable band of players trudged onto the field straight into history books. Wearing red tops with long white sleeves and lettering that read "Kettering Tyres" across the front, the Kettering Town Poppies became the first in British soccer history to compete in a pro game wearing jerseys emblazoned with a sponsor's logo.
At first, Kettering's groundbreaking move was poorly received. Britain's Football Association ordered the corporate logo removed from the team uniform within four days, and TV networks refused until 1983 to show teams wearing uniforms with corporate logos.
Still, resistance to the move eventually ebbed. Now, the revenue soccer teams generate from shirt sponsorships is staggering. Popular English team Manchester United rakes in roughly $30 million (U.S.) a year from its sponsor agreement with insurance firm AIG.
"In this day and age, almost everything is for sale," says Imraan Ladak, Kettering's chairman. "Many clubs are also selling the back of the shirt and shorts as well as the front of the shirt."
Closer to home, the Maple Leafs' sister team Toronto FC, a Major League Soccer franchise, generates millions of dollars from its sponsorship agreement with the Bank of Montreal. That deal stipulates that TFC jerseys feature the bank's logo front and centre on player jerseys.
"This is the wave of the future," says Winter, the Edmonton player agent. "The NHL isn't as profitable as other leagues, and we have very little choice but to pursue new ways to create revenue so we can reinvest in our sport. It's just a way to pay the bills."