A Brief History of Rinkside Advertising

*This archive was originally written by Jeff Seide

Attend any NHL game today and you’ll be bombarded by colorful ads from large corporations. From arena sponsorship signage to dasher board and on-ice advertising, there’s no avoiding it; and there’s more every year.

Canucks Bench Celebrates
Ads on the boards are as common and accepted as goal celebrations, but it wasn’t always this way. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

There’s a long history of advertising in hockey. Here we’ll look specifically at advertising and sponsorships around the arenas–on the boards, sections, and naming rights.

Rink Board Advertising

One of the most prominent forms of advertising in hockey comes from the ads we see plastered on every inch of the dasher boards in rinks around the world. Those who remember watching the NHL before the 1980s can reminisce about the white boards that featured nothing more than marking lines and thousands of black scuffs from repeated abuse from pucks.

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Starting with the 1978-79 season, NHL teams were allowed to sell ad space on their rink boards. However, the first display ad featured on an NHL rink board appeared in 1980. The Minnesota North Stars were the first NHL franchise to feature dasher board ads and sold eight pairs of rink boards for $3,000 a pair.

Since then, franchises have sold every inch of ad space allowed by the NHL to corporations and local businesses who want their logos and products in front of hockey fans.

Dasher Board Dimensions

The typical dimensions of dasher board graphics are 30 to 33 inches in height and around six to twelve feet in length. These graphics are usually adhesive decals that installers place on the boards.

Emerging Advertising

As technology has evolved, so have the many forms of advertising that have helped fuel new revenue streams for franchises and hockey-related media, including dynamic digital rinkside board ads (which allow for different ads to be displayed during the same game), virtual ads on the glass (which television viewers see) and video game advertising.

The first iteration of the virtual ad technology was briefly tested by the New York Rangers and MSG Network in 2008-09. During the 2010-11 season, the Philadelphia Flyers got in on the action by selling virtual ad units and generated north of half a million dollars throughout the season.

To put the revenue into perspective, the Flyers paid $2,700 a game in production costs to Sportvision, the firm that the NHL uses to operate the virtual sign system. The Flyers then sold the space for $3,500 a game to advertisers like Verizon, McDonald’s, Toyota and Geico.

In 2016, the NHL began experimenting with a virtual overlay on rink-side boards that allowed a single brand to appear on all of the boards in the Air Canada Centre at one time. Television viewers saw a single brand take over all the boards using digital technology. Though a pioneering moment for the NHL, the technology has been used for years by La Liga in Spain for ads during soccer games.

This system offers tremendous flexibility for the NHL, which has different marketing partnerships per region. For example, Canadian viewers may see ads from brands such as Tim Hortons and Canadian Tire, while American viewers see ads for Geico and DraftKings. Clubs can even sell to local or regional marketers. Another advantage is a brand can present dynamic messaging vs. a logo.

During the 2022-23 season, the NHL went all-in on digital board advertising, as it was implemented league-wide. While the process was far from seamless for viewers (many reported pucks and players disappearing during live broadcasts when the advertising layer took priority over the on-ice action) you can’t dismiss the potential of this change. NHL franchises are able to serve regional ads to their TV clientele, while national broadcasts can serve up their best real estate to high-value brands. The league wouldn’t have spent seven years and millions of dollars developing the technology if they thought there wasn’t a lot of money to be made in the long term.

While this process is far from perfect, it’s improving every season. In fact, the NHL was nominated for a 2023 Sports Emmy thanks to their work on digitally enhanced dasher board advertising, and complaints about the technology have receded as it becomes league standard. In a few years, no one will remember the old ways of static advertising along the boards.

On-Ice Advertising

At Frozenfaceoff.net, you can see an archive of many NHL teams’ rinks and their advertisements throughout history. While this isn’t a complete listing of every arena, it offers a fun look at how the ice and boards looked at different times and with different logos.

Rink Board Advertising at the 2015 ASG
Advertising at the 2015 All-Star Game. (Frozenfeacoff.net)

On-ice advertising is also relatively new to the NHL. While all teams featured ads on their boards by the end of the 1980s, ads didn’t start spilling onto the ice surface until the 1990s. While they are now featured in the neutral zone of every NHL arena, the league has conservative in comparison to elsewhere in the world.

Some European and ECHL rinks host an explosion of shapes and colors all over the ice. Below is a picture of the Oulun Energia Areena, home of the Oulun Kärpät, of Liiga in Finland. It’s a collage of mismatched sizes that make the ice look a mess.

With so many brands scattered across the fast-paced space of a hockey rink, it’s difficult to capture the attention of fans. It can also make it hard to follow the puck against such a busy surface of colors and shapes.

On-Ice ads in Finland
On-Ice ads in Finland. (Ilari Savonen)

The Montreal Canadiens doubled their logo at center ice at the Forum. They continued the tradition at Bell Centre until 2018, when they opted for one giant Habs logo. Similarly, the Detroit Red Wings cleaned up their ice, removing “Hockeytown” from center ice when they moved to the new Little Caesars Arena.

Related: The Montreal Forum 1908-1996

Starting with the 2018-19 season, teams were permitted to sell advertising in four new locations, the corners below the goal lines. It was a concept the league experimented with at the All-Star Game in January 2018, as well as the China Games between the Vancouver Canucks and Los Angeles Kings in September.

It’s the first new advertising space on the ice since the early 1990s, when teams were newly permitted to paint four sponsor logos in the neutral zone. The new corner ads can be up to 44 square feet in size, smaller than the neutral zone logos, which can be up to 81 square feet.

Jersey Ads

Rasmus Ristolainen Jersey Ads
Rasmus Ristolainen while playing for Finnish team TPS [photo: Teemu Saarinen, HC TPS]

Currently, the NHL doesn’t feature any outside advertising on its jerseys, and fans have made it clear that they are strongly against any effort to do so. In Europe, however, jersey ads are common. They’ve been selling on-jersey ad space for decades, with uniforms that would be fitting for NASCAR.

On-jersey ads is an idea the NHL has kicked around for some time. Several years ago, it was reported that such a move could generate $120 million in revenue for the league.

However, on-jersey ads reach far beyond the rink to the fans who buy them and, in turn, they become moving display ads. What immediately comes to mind are European soccer clubs. The major sponsor becomes just as prominent as the team itself.

Adidas’s seven-year partnership to be the NHL’s official jersey and licensed apparel provider was estimated to be worth double the $35 million Reebok paid until 2017 as the previous equipment sponsor. Following this, Fanatics locked down the NHL’s jersey licensing deal for 10 years starting in the 2024-25 season, and while these terms were not disclosed, we have to guess they were a good bit more than what Adidas paid back in 2017.

It’s also worth noting that during the 2020-21 NHL season, the league implemented helmet advertisements as a new revenue source to help ease some of the burden caused by economic headwinds and global shutdowns. While we don’t have an exact value of this adspace (it was estimated to raise at least $15 million in the first season), this has been a change that’s easier to process than something like European style jerssey patches. The helmet ads are mostly unnoticeable at full speed and it doesn’t interfere with patch placements on the jerseys.

Now, if you want something to complain about, th patch placement caused by advertisers in 2023 NHL Finals simply looks bad, and hopefully that won’t happen again in the future.

Arena Sponsorships

Another key component of advertising is arena sponsorship. Of the 32 NHL rinks, all but one has a corporate sponsor, Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Rangers.

Such sponsorship deals typically cost several million dollars a year and are signed anywhere from a few years to several decades. For instance, Scotiabank signed a 20-year deal worth $800 million in 2017 to sponsor the Toronto Maple Leafs’ arena. That price tag is enormous. It’s more than 10 times what Air Canada paid for the inaugural rights nearly two decades ago and head and shoulders above similar deals elsewhere in the country.

Air Canada Centre
Air Canada Centre (Balcer~commonswiki / Public domain)

Scotiabank believes the investment is worth the price tag because hockey is “core to our strategy,” said Jacquie Ryan, the bank’s vice president of sponsorship and philanthropy. Other in-arena advertising can include intermission entertainment sponsorships and giveaways to sponsor certain sections of the arena.

More Space Means More Money

It’s important to remember that, for the ownership of NHL teams, hockey is a business and ads help their franchise earn more money. The ice surface and uniforms are prime real estate for advertisers, and adding logos means more revenue, especially for a lucrative television market.

Realated: The Ice Rink: A Brief History

Now, do fans have to like these changes? No. It’s a reality of sports, however, that owners are going to try and maximize their earning potential however they can. All we can hope for is that they at least handle these changes with respect for the crest on the jersey.