Sell Out!
March 2nd, 2011

Okay, so last night’s Canucks game had some rather interesting visual stuff going on. No, the game wasn’t in 3D or anything fancy like that.

What was going on, though, was the implementation of advertising overlays on the glass behind both goalies nets, something which only TV viewers at home could see. BCIT and some vacuum cleaner company were the two that I remembered, but they were switching around rather frequently.

Unfortunately, the fan response to the advertisements was rather predictable. Most folks didn’t like the advertisements and felt that they had no place. The complaint that we were veering towards the ‘Europeanization’ of hockey, where players are so bedecked with advertising trappings that they more resemble NASCAR drivers than anything, was bandied about, while a lot of folks chalked up the decision for this new advertising scheme as being pure unadulterated greed on behalf of the Canucks organization.

While I am not a huge fan of advertising and have complained about things like McDonald’s being the ‘official’ restaurant of the Olympics (as though Olympians would continually seek out and eat McDick’s) in the past and am not trying to say ‘advertising is good’ I will say that advertising is, rather, a necessary evil when it comes to things like professional sports. For example, one of the biggest hurdles stopping NHL (re)-development in the city of Winnipeg is the lack of corporate sponsors. Corporate sponsors are the ones who buy up those box seats and sink in money for season tickets, as well as arranging advertising and sponsorship in other areas. The owner of the Calgary Roughnecks recently had to post a rather humbling open letter because he was unable to pay the members of his team on time, partially due to a lack of corporate/local government support. While the NLL is a far cry from the NHL, there are historical precedents for Canadian NHL teams being in trouble. Which brings me to my first point…

– Sports teams need to plan ahead. The Oilers were on the verge of relocation to Houston before a coalition of local businesses stepped in to save the Oilers. The Flames were also in serious danger of being moved, as were the Canucks, all in the dark ages of the 90s. While yes, the Canucks and almost all Canadian franchises are doing very well for themselves financially, all the Loonie has to do is drop back down to being worth .60 and things start looking really bleak. Being able to pad the warchests helps to guard against potential future problems or financial hiccups, while experimenting with different methods of advertising opens up new revenue streams before they may be required. Having a warchest is handy, too because,

– Running a professional sports team is expensive. I’m not just talking about the salaries of the athletes. You’re looking at the training staff, the facilities, amenities and other bells and whistles that are available to the team. A lot of ink has been devoted to the strides Mike Gillis has made in transforming the Canucks front office. There were the sleep specialists that were brought in, dietary consultants for guys like Kyle Wellwood, renovations to the team’s locker room, having a team psychologist on the payroll (Len Zaichkowsky), having a ‘capologist’ with Lawrence Gilman, among many other things. Stuff like that adds up and, if you want to continue providing such things and becoming a ‘world class’ organization, on top of paying for player salaries and spending damn near close to the cap every year to boot, costs money. It also allows the Canucks to bury players in the minors, like what the New York Rangers did with Wade Redden and his $6.5M contract.

Last year, the Canucks ended up putting Mathieu Schneider’s $3.5M contract in the minors until they managed to work out a trade with the Coyotes. Brad Lukowich also spent part of the year in the AHL, despite having a $1.5M cap hit. I’m not saying the Canucks should be constantly burying players in the minors (that’s a sign of bad management), it is nice to be able to afford to take the financial hit and have that particular option available. It also opens up the opportunity for Jason Krog (remember him?) deals to be signed. For those unawares, Krog, who has pretty much become a career AHLer, was signed to a deal that paid him quite a bit while in the AHL, with the Canucks footing a significant chunk of the bill. The deal was primarily done to give the Moose some sorely needed scoring depth, rather than help out the ‘main’ club. All that money has to come from somewhere and hey, advertising is one method of generating revenue. Which brings me to my third point…

– The ‘Europeanization’ of Hockey. Ignoring that this disturbingly sounds like something Don Cherry would say about visors, I really don’t think that there’s a lot to worry about here. While advertisements on hockey jerseys are garish and ugly and European jerseys are almost all uniformly (pun intended!) ugly, I don’t see it being an issue here in North America. The biggest reason for me is that merchandise sales are one of the big money movers for NHL teams (or, heck, most professional leagues in North America.) Start throwing McDonald’s logos or Budweiser logos on jerseys and you will have a very angry fan backlash, which will more than likely translate into less jersey sales. Another way to look at it is, would the money lost from slapping ads on jerseys be offset by the money gained from a corporate ad jersey sponsorship? Doubtful. (On the other hand, the money gained from overlay ads on televised games offsets the lost revenue that would come from people turning off the game and boycotting Sportsnet.)

The second reason is that European hockey leagues and the NHL are operating in completely different stratospheres and, subsequently, completely different operating budgets. Leagues such as the SEL simply cannot throw millions of dollars at a single player because they do not have the money available to do so. Why? Because they are making less money. Yet, despite making less money, these teams are having to deal with the same day to day operating costs that their NHL brethren do. Thus, different ways of trying to make money are explored and, as a result, ugly jerseys.

Additionally, if the motivations for doing so are ‘pure greed’, then why haven’t the NFL, MLB or NBA gone down this dark road and started slapping on corporate ads on their jerseys? I’d say that it most likely is tied into fan outrage and fear of the terrible backlash they might face were such an idea were implemented.

While having more advertising creep into telecasts isn’t my ideal, perfect world of How Hockey Should Be Enjoyed, it is something that needs to be done in a multimillion dollar league where the goal is to be the very best. As the menu on McDonald’s states, smiles are free…and smiles won’t get you the Stanley Cup, no matter how many there are.

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