By now you have heard the news, and you’ve seen the complaints. The NHL has officially partnered with Fanatics to be the official on-ice jersey maker starting with the 2024-2025 season.
Unless you live under a rock, you already know about Fanatics. They run millions of commercials per sporting event and produce apparel for pretty much every sport under the sun, from the NHL to the NBA to MLB to college and everything in between.
If professional dodgeball actually existed, like it did in the Vince Vaughn classic “Dodgeball: a True Underdog Story”, it would most likely be Fanatics making those Average Joe’s jerseys.
If Chuck Norris in that movie was anything like us hockey fans, he’d give those jerseys a thumbs down (that’s another “Dodgeball” movie reference, if that went over anyone’s head).
Fanatics has already been making NHL fan replica jerseys and developed an unsatisfactory reputation for quality issues, spelling and number problems, among other things. If Fanatics headquarters just downloaded spellcheck, maybe half of these problems would be avoided.
Adidas is out and Fanatics is in as the NHL’s on-ice jersey supplier.
But why would the NHL choose Fanatics? The more I think about it, the more likely it seems that Fanatics was the only option. The last two NHL jersey manufacturers in Reebok and Adidas both voluntarily let their contracts expire.
Adidas said back last summer they weren’t renewing their NHL deal, so this isn’t exactly news to the league. They had plenty of time to vet other potential partners.
Immediately, I thought back to the hockey jerseys of my childhood and CCM. The NHL standardized jersey manufacturers starting with the 1989-1990 season. Prior to that, teams chose their own jersey manufacturers.
For example, the Edmonton Oilers had used companies called Sandow SK and Maska before the NHL’s league-wide changeover.
A Sporting News article from last summer after the Adidas news broke listed CCM as a potential replacement, adding they currently manufacture AHL and Canadian Major Junior hockey jerseys.
Another main player in the sports apparel world is Under Armour. They lack any hockey products whatsoever, so that would have been a near-impossible choice. Another company that came to mind was Roustan Hockey.
Roustan Media is the parent company of The Hockey News. Their owner, W. Graeme Roustan, frequently writes about the hockey equipment business in The Hockey News magazine and how he focuses on keeping it affordable and made in Canada.
Both of those sound like music to hockey fans’ ears and an opportunity for synergy between the league’s apparel supplier and the sport’s top publication (after Puck Prose, of course!).
W. Graeme Roustan also learned from his experience overseeing Bauer Sports and the mismanagement that almost lead that company to bankruptcy.
After taking over The Hockey News, he undertook measures such as finding a new printer to improve the magazine’s physical quality as well as launching online endeavors. The Hockey News has also been close to bankruptcy in the recent past.
The NHL’s partnership with Adidas wasn’t exactly perfect either. Fans on multiple occasions have sued the manufacturer over Fanatics “authentic” claims of their products.
The latest lawsuit quoted Dicks Sports Goods in explaining that “authentic” and “official” and/or “replica” are two separate kinds of jerseys. Players wear “authentic” jerseys, fight strap, and all. “Official” or “replica” jerseys are mass-produced for fan purposes only.
In a way, that makes a bit of sense. Hockey jerseys are expensive, in many cases costing more than game tickets themselves. If a fan wants to get a jersey just for the purpose of wearing it as apparel, then it doesn’t need to be to the same quality standards as what players are wearing on the ice.
That results in a cheaper product passing the savings onto the fan. The bigger issue is the quality of the jerseys the players themselves wear in this situation, provided the fans feel the price they are paying for their jerseys is worth the sticker price.
Here’s what doomed all those other companies hockey fans would have likely preferred: they’re not Fanatics.
As Richard Morin’s USA Today article explained, (he also explained my previously mentioned note that Under Armour was never really an option) Fanatics has unfortunately developed into a sports apparel monopoly.
CCM, Roustan, and any other potential bidders for the NHL jersey contract couldn’t compete with the enormous scale of Fanatics, which has already cornered the entire market seemingly.
Adidas might have been the only company that could come close, but they have the contracts for the other three major professional sports (MLB, NBA, and NFL), so the NHL business might not have been worth keeping from their perspective.
Here’s another interesting fact about Fanatics. Their owner, Michael Rubin, used to own a minority stake in the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA and the New Jersey Devils.
There was previous controversy with his personal relationship with now 76ers player James Harden and how Rubin could leverage personal financial relationships with players. He sold his minority stake in June 2022 because of rules regarding team ownership and wanting to expand the Fanatics business.
Very convenient timing as the NHL announced the expiration of the Adidas deal just a month later.
Rubin already had a somewhat working relationship with the NHL owner and higher-ups and divested himself of all NHL team-owning interests at just the perfect time. Not saying there was collusion, but it’s perfectly likely that Rubin heard the NHL jersey rights would be up for sale.
If he had wanted to sell his minority stake already, (doing so would be a long and drawn-out process not made overnight) he could have done so in a timeframe that made both his business interests and potential Fanatics expansions line up perfectly.
Plus, the James Harden controversy makes it unlikely the NHL jersey deal was the only reason for Rubin selling off his ownership stakes.
The NHL’s announcement doesn’t address any of the fans’ concerns. It did say that Fanatics will, at least at first, be using the same Canadian production facility Adidas was using.
The Fanatics website lists their United States-based manufacturing locations as Tampa and Jacksonville in Florida, plus Fairdale, Kentucky, and a dedicated facility in Easton, Pennsylvania. Perhaps the factory change will alleviate some of those quality concerns among fans.