With new NHL sponsorship, brands find their shirt

Hockey sponsorship has become a bit of a theme in Canadian marketing this year. A few months ago, a number of top brands wanted nothing to do with Hockey Canada after ugly allegations of sexual assault against Team Canada players surfaced. That mess is still being cleaned up by Hockey Canada, and it’s hard to say when brands will return.

But in the past two weeks, three Canadian brands—RBC, Dairy Farmers of Ontario, and Canada Life—proved they still believe in the big-time value of big-time hockey when they signed on as the first jersey sponsors for the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Winnipeg Jets respectively (see more on each deal below.)

This is the first time the NHL has allowed brands to appear on the game jerseys. The logos are permitted on either the upper corner of the chest, or on the shoulder. They must fit into a 3 x 3.5-inch space, the deals must be for between three and five years, and cost brand partners between $5 and $10 million.

That last detail isn’t from the NHL, and nobody is disclosing the real cost, but that’s the range that’s being widely reported—with high-profile, big market franchises like the Leafs and Canadiens more likely closer to $10 million a year.

It’s not a small number and the return out of the gate wasn’t great—especially for RBC and DFO, whose sponsorship deals generated both anger and ridicule. “It’s a lot of money,” said David Chong, managing director at MKTG Sports + Entertainment.  “And they’re getting skewered in the media. RBC was not a favourable reaction. Milk was not a favourable reaction.”

Sponsorship activations are always a delicate balancing act—be there, but not too there, seem supportive not opportunistic—but that’s especially so when it comes to putting a brand on something that is worshipped by so many. And worshipped is the right word here: hockey teams elicit near religious fervour among fans in Canada and the jerseys treated like sacred canvas.

As soon as it was announced the NHL would permit jersey sponsors this season, traditionalists complained about over-commercialization of the game they love, and claimed this was the first step down a slippery slope that will one day see NHL uniforms looking like those common in Europe.

But Stellick Marketing’s Brian Findlay said you only have to look at sports leagues like the EPL, where jersey sponsorships have been common since the late 1980s, and F1, where sponsorship liveries debuted in 1968, to get a sense of how fans ultimately adapt. “It’s the kind of thing that will blow over because we’ve seen it blow over quickly in other sports.”

It’s always difficult to judge true consumer sentiment when journalists use social media as a barometer, but there was lots of talk about Habs fans being outraged by the blue RBC logo on the iconic red Canadiens sweater, while DFO’s decision to put the word “Milk” on the Leafs jersey seemed to evoke more laughs than angst. (And for older fans at least, brought this to mind.)

But placing brands on jerseys was inevitable, said Shannon Davidson, chief client officer with National PR and a longtime sports marketing expert. “Almost every other uniformed sport has done it—the CFL has had it for years in Canada. Soccer lives by it,” she said. “Honestly, the brands most affected by this are the actual equipment brands—because now they have branding competition. If I’m Nike, Adidas, Bauer, CCM…  I’m no longer the only logo on the player. So that conversation has likely been interesting.”

And negative press and social media outrage will be a small price to pay for being first movers. People will get used to it and the jersey activation will have the same effect and benefits as other sponsorships, said Chong.

It’s a good way to reach and connect with a targeted consumer group by showing support for the passions of that group, he said. “We want to show that we support what you support,” he said.

Sponsors will see real value for having their brand on the jersey, though that value compared to other placements will be subjective, said Davidson. “Ultimately—with any sponsorship—a logo placement is a real estate buy.”

Findlay said the jersey logo inherently has greater value than a helmet placement, because it can be displayed outside the rink, such as when a player is making a community appearance, or on the official merchandise purchased by fans. And the proximity to a player’s face also suggests a tacit endorsement by the player. “Take milk, for instance. I mean, everybody knows what milk is, but because it’s on Auston Matthews or Mitch Marner, there’s a tacit endorsement of milk as part of their life,” he said. “There’s more to it than just getting the logo there.”

The key to a solid association, said Davidson, is what you do beyond the logo—the actions you take off the ice—from your broadcast buys/integration to you community programs, etc. “A logo on a jersey isn’t going to be the big win for brand—it has to be part of an integrated sponsorship strategy.”

Change like this always generates all kinds of varied responses, she added. But there’s no doubt all the players involved thought through that reaction, and the longer term upside.

“In the case of the Leafs and Milk—the Leafs have family fans and Milk wants to reach them,” she said. “It’s also a “safe” brand for the Leafs to put on the jerseys for that very reason—Milk is kid friendly and something easy for players to feel comfortable about having on their shoulder.”

And while just three of the seven Canadian NHL teams have signed a sponsor so far, a handful of U.S. teams have also signed deals, and the NHL expects about half of its 32 teams to feature a brand on their uniforms at some point this year.

There were some suggestions in the media that the Edmonton Oilers chose not to have a sponsor, but Chong is dubious. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “All 32 teams voted unanimously to do this. Why you vote in favour of doing it and then not do it is beyond me.”


Toronto Maple Leafs and Dairy Farmers of Ontario (Milk brand)

DFO described its deal as “building on” an existing partnership to support healthy active living and greater access to hockey for fans everywhere.

“Just as milk nourishes healthy bodies, Ontario’s dairy farming families proudly nourish healthy communities, and that’s been the focus of our ongoing partnership with the Toronto Maple Leafs,” said Cheryl Smith, CEO of Dairy Farmers of Ontario (DFO). “Placing our Milk logo on the Leafs’ sweaters is a symbol of this shared commitment, and of milk’s role in building strong bodies and healthy lives.”

Montreal Canadiens and RBC

Unlike the DFO deal with the Maple Leafs for home and away games, RBC’s deal is only for home games, but will also go beyond the logo on the jersey to include “unique fan experiences” and in-arena activations at the Bell Centre. RBC will also donate $20 to Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation, which encourages physical activity and a healthy lifestyle for underprivileged youth in Quebec, for every jersey bearing the RBC logo that is sold.

“At RBC, we believe sports have the power to unite communities. And hockey, which is part of Quebec’s rich heritage, brings an entire nation together,” said Nadine Renaud-Tinker, regional president, RBC in Quebec. “Teaming up with the Montreal Canadiens in this first-of-its-kind partnership is an honour, and we are incredibly excited to see it come to life as we continue to drive impact for Quebec’s prosperity, while engaging with our communities.”

Winnipeg Jets and Canada Life

In Winnipeg, Canada Life will be on the jersey for every home and away game. Canada Life also had an existing partnership with Jets owners True North Sports + Entertainment, including naming rights for the Jets’ home arena—Canada Life Centre. Like RBC, Canada Life will donate $20 for each jersey sold with the Canada Life patch on it to help send kids to True North Youth Foundation’s Camp Manitou,

“As one of our country’s most enduring companies, Canada Life is honoured to build on our partnership with one of Canada’s most beloved sports teams, the Winnipeg Jets,” said Canada Life president and CEO Paul Mahon. “This first-of-its-kind partnership deepens our already strong relationship with True North Sports + Entertainment both on the ice and in support of our communities.”

—With Files From Chris Powell




David Brown