Home > Culture, Sports > NHL Jersey Ads and the Flickering Spirit of Sports

NHL Jersey Ads and the Flickering Spirit of Sports

Professional sports are massively popular conduits for corporate profit. To deny this or even to minimize its vital importance in the continuing perpetuation of any significant athletic competition would be foolish and blind. The will to profit relies fundamentally upon the deeply-felt, visceral, tribal loyalty of fans to their teams in particular and to their sport of choice in general. The force of their belief is irrational, and its purest iterations are unconnected to competitive success: witness the persistent home arena sellouts for the perennial basement-dwelling Edmonton Oilers. These deep reserves of loyalty and dedication are the stuff of corporate executive dreams, for they predict a lifetime of consistent consumption on the particular brand of the fan’s choice (if, indeed, the alignment was a choice in any conscious sense; such affiliations can be matters of family or community inheritance).

In the National Hockey League, the business side of the equation is as dominant as in the NBA, Major League Baseball, or the black-eyed capitalist colossus that is the NFL. Arenas have corporate name sponsors, the boards surrounding the ice are wraparound billboards, signature television broadcasts are run by corporate conglomerates who sell segment name rights to other companies. The NHL is a profit machine, and much of that profit is tied in with corporate marketing strategies that visually and linguistically associate the on-ice product with corporate logos and taglines.

And yet, like the other three major North American sports leagues, a line is drawn in the metaphorical sand when it comes to the sale of advertising space on NHL team jerseys. Unlike European sports leagues or domestic organizations like NASCAR, where paid logo ads are plastered onto uniforms with impunity, the NHL and its fellow leagues forbid such ads. And so it was with a tone of faux-resignation, the kind so often utilized to discursively presage paradigm-shifting alterations in the status quo masterminded by corporate decision-makers against the consent of consumers, that NHL COO John Collins said that jersey ads are “coming and happening”.

NHL fans have already objected to this suggestion at various magnitudes, and the core of their assumed objections was summarized eloquently by Paul Campbell at The Hockey Chat. Transgressing this last boundary, allowing corporate imagery to compete with and ultimately sully team jerseys and all that they are taken to mean, is conceived of as a serious body blow to the symbolism, the magic, the aura of the game, those who play it, and the teams and fanbases they represent. The team jersey has an “inviolability” and a “sanctity” that would, if ads were permitted alongside a team crest, be violated.

Campbell makes his point very well and it will doubtlessly resonate very deeply with many hockey fans, especially those with strong team loyalties who likewise share an aesthetic appreciation for the sport’s flashes of beauty (and may also appreciate its enervating but troubling bursts of violence). But considering jersey ads to be an unforgivable trespass on the near-religious significance of the sport to many strikes me as a curious distinction to make in a sports milieu already suffused and often disfigured by capitalism.

It is also a distinction that is contradicted by precedents. Campbell does not mention that corporate sponsors have been emblazoning their logos onto the kits of major European soccer clubs for decades without evident ill effects on the sanctity of the game. Indeed, many of these clubs can boast of a level of fan loyalty and inextricable community identification that some of the NHL’s more marginal franchises would kill for (does it “mean” anything to be, say, a Florida Panther?), and the sport of international football enjoys a level of global popularity (and, at its best, an aura of sublime inspiration) that would make Gary Bettman weep into his ginger ale if he ever cared to contemplate it. Does Manchester United mean less to its legions of worldwide devotees because of the Chevrolet logo in the dead centre of its jersey? If so, I’d be curious to know how.

The jersey ad distinction also raises an interesting question about team logos themselves. Campbell cites the common NHL practice of skirting around the team crest on dressing room floors; to tread upon it is considered a transgression on par with stomping thoughtless on graves in a cemetery, if not worse. But is a team crest not itself a corporate logo, by any conceivable definition? If it is animated with a resonance that goes beyond that of the standard corporate logo, is that not a triumph of consumer conditioning and brand marketing rather than a statement of communal meaning as established through a shared history of experience? To what extent has that shared history, if it does predominate in the construction of team significance, been coopted by corporate forces for the sake of profit? Where precisely, in a contemporary North American culture consumed by corporatism, does the capitalist imperative end and the deeper spirit of engagement with the game begin? On the jersey, we are told.

The idea of the team jersey as an inviolable space reflects, to my mind, the interesting and self-contradictory magical thinking that undergirds the attitude towards professional sports in North America. In the United States, a nation whose identity is very much defined by its self-conception as a culture of liberty-chasing, free-market entrepreneurs, the business of professional sports is run and protected by powerful cartels that disregard supply and demand and other economic imperatives at every turn. For all of America’s stereotyped conceptions of European society, its major football leagues operate more closely on free market principles than the North American Big Four leagues.

Football clubs that lose money, run up debts, or are otherwise characterized by financial malfeasance are punished in competitive terms: Glasgow Rangers, the Toronto Maple Leafs of Scottish football (to Old Firm rival Glasgow Celtic’s Montreal Canadiens), were busted down to the fourth tier of the national competition pyramid after the liquidation of the club’s corporate entity in 2012. Competitive failures, in turn, carry economic consequences through the promotion/relegation system, wherein the clubs with a given league’s worst records are dropped to a lower division, replaced by that lower division’s best. Profits are higher in the better leagues, lower in the weaker ones, commensurate to the level of competition. Such regulations applied to the NHL would have driven storied franchises like the Oilers and Leafs out of the league as they have gone through recent cellar-dwelling spells, and money-losing Sun Belt franchises like the Panthers and Arizona Coyotes would have slid to lower levels or simply folded rather than been propped up by revenue sharing and league ownership.

Professional sports in Canada and the United States increasingly reflect the state of capitalism in those countries. In spite of corporate elites’ self-image as self-reliant, trailblazing individualists, their business model relies on being sheltered and protected from market forces, propped up by government subsidies and tax breaks, coccooned in silky privilege. This state of things could be roughly equated with the similar notion of some lingering core of pure spirit surviving deep in the game of hockey despite being blanketed by smothering corporatism. There is some flickering light of the sublime glowing in the heart of a sport like hockey, on that its many devoted fans can agree. But the extent to which it can be believed in on its own terms and not as another commodity, as a mere platitude in a marketing campaign, is unclear.

Categories: Culture, Sports
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