Among North America’s four largest sports leagues, the NHL always has had to fight harder and grind a bit extra in the corner for sponsorship dollars. When it first offered its arena sideboards to advertisers in the 1980s, critics complained that is was a desperate sellout, a rinky-dink gambit other leagues wouldn’t in their wildest dreams consider.
But then the money, lots of it, began gushing, and all the other leagues rushed to the revenue geyser. The greenbacks flowed like warm water from the back end of a Zamboni.
Today, 30-plus years later, it would be blank sideboards free of advertising that would scream “bush league!” Could we imagine watching a Red Sox broadcast anymore without the ad for the Ninety Nine, Frank Webb or JetBlue popping up all over the screen, as if painted on Fenway’s walls big and small? The NHL changed the branding game in the United States and Canada.
Channeling the Starship Enterprise, the NHL this past week went a step even further and decided “to boldly go where no one has gone before,” affixing naming rights to its four rejiggered divisions for the new season that begins on Wednesday.
No, Scotty, this ain’t Mr. Spock’s Original Six anymore. None of our leagues ever before stapled a corporate name to its divisions or conferences.
There’s no way of knowing where sports branding will go from here. The Home Depot NFL? Go ahead, laugh, all the way to the HD Pittsburgh Steelers paint aisle, or the HD New England Patriots garden center.
The Bruins and their seven brethren in the East this season will play in the MassMutual Division. Great for the Springfield-based company, I guess, though I’m stunned it wasn’t Dunkin’, which seems to slap its name on every open square foot around here.
Out West, the likes of the Kings and Ducks will suit up under the Honda tag. The Ducks have played for years in the Honda Center.
Discover owns the rights to teams in the Division Formerly Known as Central. “Hello, my name is Peggy — you want to know what is problem with Blue Jackets? Please hold.”
Up North, the seven NHL teams in Canada have been branded the Scotiabank Division. Tim Hortons, the Dunkin’ of Canada, was caught sipping cold decaf on that deal.
Scotiabank, by the way, loves the name game. In the summer of 2017, it signed a 20-year, $800 million deal to slap its name on the downtown Toronto arena (formerly the Air Canada Centre) that is home to the Maple Leafs and Raptors.
Scotiabank Arena is widely believed to be the richest naming rights deal in North American sports. At least until the day comes when the Red Sox put out bids for naming rights to Fenway.
Actually, it is the Red Sox, who opened their new ballpark’s gates in 1912, who possibly were the first to weave a company name into the naming of their hallowed park. As Richard Johnson wrote in “Field of Our Fathers,” his splendid illustrated history of Fenway Park, the Taylor family at the time owned the Red Sox, the ballpark, and the neighborhood’s Fenway Realty Company.
It’s quite likely, Johnson believes, the Taylors chose the name Fenway Park as a means of early-20th century cross promotion. Johnson credited his colleague, Glenn Stout, for doing the research that led to the assumption.
“And Wrigley Field [home to the Cubs] was the most clever connection to chewing gum, or to any product in sports,” Johnson mused this past week. “Because no one ever thought of that as pushing chewing gum — but the Wrigleys owned it all, so, bingo!”
Some 60 years after the quirky Fenway opened, New England officially moved to the vanguard in the branding game when the Patriots finally found a permanent home in Foxborough in 1971 and named it Schaefer Stadium. Schaefer, a New York City beer, dated to 1842. It later gave way to Sullivan Stadium, and then Foxboro Stadium, before the Kraft-owned Patriots finally moved into their adjacent Gillette Stadium digs in 2002.
Naming rights didn’t come to Causeway Street until 1995, when the Bruins and Celtics moved into the New Garden. The building was set to open as the Shawmut Center, with arena seats stamped with the bank’s classic logo of sachem Obbatinewat, a native North American. Fleet Bank took over Shawmut before the building’s unveiling, forcing the quick removal of the logos. TD Bank became the No. 3 hitter in the Garden name game. I often just refer to it as the Vault. Much easier.
Will anyone really refer to the new NHL divisions by their corporate tags? Not likely. The NHL’s national TV partners in the US and Canada no doubt will be forced to use them, at the very least when posting standings and/or game schedules.
The NHL last month also for the first time approved the use of small decals on helmets as a means of generating advertising revenue. It’s really only the players’ sweaters, pants, and the three red posts that frame the net that remain up for grabs.
The COVID-19 pandemic crushed NHL income and it’s the steep loss in revenues that led in large part to the selling of helmet space and the divisional branding scheme. It’s possible that the virus will prevent some teams from selling a single ticket this season. The dollar loss is real and huge.
The NHL has not said these are just one-year initiatives, a bandage to stop the current fiscal bleeding. Maybe that’s the case. But I doubt it.
Sports marketing history shows that selling typically begets more selling. What shocks us today (ads on the Green Monster … yikes!), quickly gives way to acceptance, and in some cases, expectation. There is less turnover among the sponsors than there is on the playing rosters.
The good news is that none of this changes how the games are played. No one forces us to pay attention to the ads, to bank at their bank, take out their insurance, drive their car or use their credit card.
Heck, we’re above all that. Even those of us who still recite lines from TV commercials that aired in the 1960s when we watched and listened to our favorite teams. A new NHL season is about to begin. Let’s chill. Have a ’Gansett, neighbors, and enjoy the show.