Puck Goes Pop

Pepsi on Ice: A brief history of hockey sponsorship and cross-promotion

Pepsi on Ice: A brief history of hockey sponsorship and cross-promotion
Coca-Cola still fills the majority of the NHL arena soda fountains. But Denver's Pepsi Center boasts one of the longest-running naming rights contracts in the league. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

As a concept, Pepsi is as old as Stanley Cup competition. The soda and the sports tournament share an 1893 birthdate.

In each entity’s quasquicentennial year, one might think the stars aligned for the beverage to partner with the game. It has, still does and is slated to continue to do so. Even while Coca-Cola sustains a considerable presence of its own, as it does most anywhere.

Pepsi-Cola (eventually shortened to Pepsi) marks its familiar brand’s 120th birthday this Tuesday, August 28. But if you include its time under its original banner, Brad’s Drink, it has been around for 125 years.

Historically, you might say Pepsi has been the Toronto Maple Leafs to Coca-Cola’s Montreal Canadiens. The senior soda (created in 1886, incorporated in 1892) has had the longer and more ornate run. Unreliable back-and-forth taste polls aside, it still has some objective advantages today.

Six months ago, CNN Money reported that the red-can cola more than doubled its blue-brandishing rival in market shares. It also has a slightly more qualitative presence in prominent concession stands.

Entering the 2018-19 season, Coke controls the soda fountains at 16 of the NHL’s 31 arenas. Pepsi partners with 13 venues, while RC fills the other two.

With the AHL’s Marlies, Toronto’s rechristened Coca-Cola Coliseum will soon become the company’s first major namesake among hockey arenas.

In The Show, though, Pepsi fills the more gargantuan and glamorous portions of the pop pie. Besides adorning its name on one NHL arena in Denver, it continues to act as the league’s official soft-drink sponsor.

Coca-Cola originally held that distinction from 1989 to 2006. (Who can forget the marketing empty netters teams scored with “Put Your Thirst on Ice” ads?) When it left the league-wide alliance to stick with select teams, Pepsi swooped in to supplant it. The current partnership was renewed in 2012, and again this past January.

That extension, especially while surrounding a host of milestones for both companies, evokes a history of prominent Pepsi-puck partnerships. They go back to when corporate arena appellations were unheard of, but minor-league cross-promotions were not.

For their final four seasons, the AHL’s Buffalo Bisons went all-out to flaunt their ties with local Pepsi bottlers. Both Buffalo enterprises were owned by the Pastor family in the late 1960s.

Accordingly, the Bisons sported an all-American red-white-and-blue uniform. For their logo, they scripted their city name onto a bottle cap. Champagne corks popped by the end of that era, as the team won the 1970 Calder Cup before ceding the Memorial Auditorium to the NHL’s expansion Sabres.

Ironically, today’s Buffalo Bisons are a Triple-A baseball club at Coca-Cola Field. The 30-year-old park has granted the naming rights to Pepsi’s nemesis for the last decade and counting.

But the Queen City’s hockey scene recently had prominent remnants of the old Bisons’ backer. In 1998, the Amherst Pepsi Center opened in the suburbs and retained its original name until the turn of this decade.

The two-sheet facility, one-time Sabres practice venue and home of the OJHL’s Jr. Sabres, has since shed corporate naming rights. It is now simply the Northtown Center at Amerst.

The rink formerly known as the Amherst Pepsi Center was never to be confused with Denver’s Pepsi Center. Entering its 20th season of operation, all under the same moniker, the Colorado Avalanche abode represented a boom of sorts.

There was a time when Pepsi plastered its name on four professional hockey arenas around the continent. Concomitant with the new Denver building, the old Colisee de Quebec was rebranded Colisee Pepsi ahead of the 1999-00 campaign.

That would be the inaugural season for the AHL’s Quebec Citadelles, who stuck through 2001-02. The venue kept its name while housing major junior’s Remparts until it closed in 2015. It would host the Memorial Cup as its final hockey act.

Throughout the Citadelles’ existence, one Eastern Conference rival, the Albany River Rats, called Pepsi Arena home. The soft-drink brewer retained the naming rights to the Capital District’s premier venue from 1997 to 2006.

The Citadelles’ brief run also overlapped with an Anglophone Pepsi Coliseum harboring a minor-league team. That would be the Double-A Central League’s incarnation of the Indianapolis Ice.

A legacy of the old Ice, who dropped out of Triple-A’s IHL in 1998, the CHL squad kept pro hockey at the Coliseum through 2004. The building continued its naming-rights contract through 2012 while hosting a junior version of the Ice. It would subsequently close for two years, then reopen with a new title sponsor.

But having answered to the name Pepsi Coliseum from 1991 to 2012, it still barely exceeds the beverage’s marquee reign in Denver.

Odds are that will change by the start of the 2020-21 season. Naturally, that assumes the naming rights do not change. The mere fact that they never have stands out on its own.

Of the 17 NHL mansions existing for 20 seasons or more, only Chicago’s United Center (opened in 1994) has kept the same title sponsor. New York’s Madison Square Garden (opened in 1968) is the last of the pre-corporate facilities.

Behind those two, the Pepsi Center and L.A.’s Staples Center are tied for the longest run with no name alterations. Whether it was through company makeovers or higher bids from other industries, some places have been renamed as many as three times in two decades.

Time shall tell if the Coca-Cola Coliseum gives way just as easy, or sticks like Pepsi Arena/Center/Coliseum/Colisee.

Al Daniel

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