When the NHL last week officially unveiled its jersey deal with Adidas — which beginning with the 2016 World Cup of Hockey and then the 2017-18 season will take over from its own Reebok division as the exclusive supplier of on-ice apparel and supplier of licensed apparel and headwear — it came with one inevitable question: Will there be ads on NHL jerseys?
The topic has been greatly debated for years, not just in the NHL but the NBA, NFL and MLB, with some supporting tradition, some stressing revenue and others seeking a middle ground.
Nascar is the runaway leader in placing ads on its drivers' suits. MLS, citing a long-standing strategy among international soccer teams, has numerous clubs whose jersey-fronts are emblazoned with the logo of marketing partners. About half of the WNBA teams have jersey-front sponsors, as do some teams in the NBA's Development League. NFL teams have ads on their practice jerseys but not game-day uniforms.
The NBA appears to be the most accommodating of the "big four" sports in the U.S. to enter this territory, as witnessed by the WNBA, D-League and comments from league executives.
"Exactly when it's going to come I'm not sure, but I think it's inevitable in our sport," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this year, without offering a timeline. "It's less a function of purists who oppose it and say the (jersey) should be clean. It's more a function of figuring out the right economic model."
The NBA in June signed an eight-year deal with Nike, which in 2017-18 takes over from Adidas as the league's exclusive on-court jersey partner. Both sides said that a Nike logo would appear on the new jersey, which was not the case with Adidas, which has been the NBA's partner in this category since 2006.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has been adamant about keeping brand logos other than Adidas’ three stripes off of uniforms.
"There has been speculation that this deal will inevitably lead to ads on jerseys," Bettman said during the NHL-Adidas media conference in the NHL's New York office, which also was attended by Mark King, president for Adidas Group North America. "That is absolutely not true. The fact of the matter is, we are not currently considering putting advertising on NHL jerseys. There have been no discussions formally or informally with anyone about doing that."
However, Donald Fehr, executive director for the NHL Players Association, who participated in the media conference via phone, did leave the door open for some options.
"The World Cup gives us an opportunity for experimentation, if we want to, for different things," said Ferh, speaking about the two-week event scheduled for next September, which will mirror the FIFA World Cup by featuring teams from around the world vying for one trophy. "From the players' standpoint, my obligation is to explore all avenues (of revenue)."
Although the value of ads on jerseys depends on each respective league, there is agreement that the move would add significant revenue.
The total value of jersey-front sponsorship among the 20 teams in the English Premier League, for example, has been placed at more than $325 million, nearly double that from 2010, according to industry analysts.
Manchester United is in the midst of a seven-year deal with Chevrolet, including jersey-front sponsorship, valued at $81.6 million (US) annually. Arsenal has a pact with Emirates, including jersey-front sponsorship, that brings in more than $46 million (US) per year.
In 2012, when David Stern was still commissioner, reports circulated that the NBA's Board of Governors had serious discussions about putting ads on jerseys, with the revenue to be generated estimated at $100 million annually.
Analysts say that figure would be substantially higher moving forward, and exponentially higher for the NFL and MLB.
Whether or not that is motivation enough to bring major changes to the jerseys of the big four sports in the U.S. remains to be seen.
"We will not be the first," said Bettman. "I would have to be dragged kicking and screaming. It would take a lot, a lot of money to do so."