Sports marketing experts say it remains to be seen whether there will be a sponsorship fallout after allegations of sexual assault within the Chicago Blackhawks organization came to light.
A report this week detailed how senior leaders of the NHL team badly mishandled allegations that a video coach sexually assaulted Kyle Beach during the team's Stanley Cup run in 2010.
So far, the Blackhawks organization has been fined $2 million for inadequate internal procedures, and the team's former coach and general manager are set to meet with the NHL commissioner.
David Soberman, a professor with the Rotman School of Management with the University of Toronto, said the Blackhawks can avoid damage to their brand if they show they're taking concrete preventive action, especially because many members of management are different from the time of the incident.
But he said the brand could take a hit and sponsors could divert money if the organization responds ambiguously.
"It was 11 years ago, and the organization isn’t the same as it was now," said Soberman.
"What’s really important is how the organization today treats this and acts upon it. If they’re very ambiguous with their actions, this could absolutely be something that causes sponsors and even fans to turn away."
Cheri Bradish, associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, said the Blackhawks have serious rebuilding to do, and said ongoing controversy around the insensitivity of their name and logo to Indigenous people doesn't help their case.
However, she said there is currently an air of hesitancy around sponsor action because of the pandemic, which was evident after the Montreal Canadiens drafted a player convicted of sexual misconduct this summer.
"It seemed like there was sponsor hesitancy at the time, and that's first and foremost where we see pocketbooks speaking largest and affecting teams the most."
Multiple NHL sponsors did not respond to a request for comment before publishing, but league sponsor Scotiabank said leaders in the sport have to prioritize creating an environment where people feel comfortable speaking out.
"Ensuring a safe and inclusive environment where everyone can thrive is core to Scotiabank’s values, and abuse of any kind goes against the very values that hockey is meant to embody," read a company statement.
"This troubling incident highlights the ongoing work that needs to be done to ensure that inclusion remains a key priority in hockey, and to create an environment where it is safe to speak up against acts of abuse and discrimination in the sport.”
Marvin Ryder, a professor with McMaster University, said more details will have to be clarified about which executives knew of the incident before sponsors can make decisions over pulling their support.
He said the Blackhawks likely face bigger risk to their brand than the NHL itself, unless it comes to light that the league was aware of the incident after it first happened a decade ago.
"If I'm the hockey club or the NHL, I can only react to things I know about, and if there were people in the chain of command who blocked that information, how could I have responded," said Ryder.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2021.
Salmaan Farooqui, The Canadian Press