For the first time in 46 years, the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs do not feature a team from Canada. All seven Canadian-based teams failed to qualify for the playoffs this season, as opposed to last season when five of seven made an appearance. As a result, the viewership for this year’s playoffs is down 60% in Canada. Canada is a huge market for hockey and the NHL, so while Canada’s Sportsnet executive is “disappointed but not panicked,” it seems there is cause for concern, at least from a marketing perspective. The poor viewership in Canada can have negative implications for the NHL’s partnerships and sponsors for Canadian television networks. If all seven Canadian teams fail to reach the postseason again next year, there could be some hesitation from companies to provide sponsorships or engage in partnerships with the Stanley Cup playoffs next season. So what can the NHL do to help engage the Canadian audience in this year’s playoffs? As mentioned in a previous post, one of the most valuable marketing chips a sports entity holds are the athletes themselves. The NHL needs to utilize its Canadian-born stars that are still competing in the playoffs to market to the Canadian audience. Many players who have represented Canada at international competitions are still currently competing with their American-based NHL teams for the Stanley Cup. Prime examples of these players include Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), Jamie Benn (Dallas Stars), Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf (Anaheim Ducks), John Tavares (New York Islanders), and even Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos who may return to the playoffs after injury if the Lightning can stay in the playoffs long enough. These players all have deep roots in Canada, and can be used as a promotional and marketing device to entice Canadian viewers to watch the playoffs. So while Canadian networks may not be “panicked” about the down viewership in this year, I believe it is a cause for concern. But due to Canada’s huge presence in the NHL, there are plenty of marketable players available who can help draw in Canadian viewers if the NHL promotes and markets them properly.
One great marketing tool that the NHL has is the NHL video game series produced by EA sports. The popular game series can be a gold mine for new fans, or a means of enhancing current fans’ relationships and experiences with the NHL. According to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 155 million Americans play video games, 4 out of 5 U.S. households own a device to play video games, and 42% of Americans play video games regularly. That is a pretty large market of video game users that the EA NHL series has a chance to reach. People may buy/play the NHL video game, for the sole reason that they like to play video games. This allows the NHL to partner with EA sports to use the game as marketing tool to reach new audiences and gain new fans. Someone who just plays the game because they like they game will at least gain exposure to the sport and the league, and has the potential to become a new fan of the NHL. This is extremely beneficial for the NHL. In regards to current fans, they can feel a stronger connection to the league and their favorite teams, by actually getting to use their favorite teams and players in the game. A lot of research has been done on relationships to video games are, and many findings show that video game players can feel a bond to the avatars they are using in the game. Overall, EA sports NHL video game series is a great marketing tool for the NHL.
One of the biggest marketing tools that professional sports entities have is the athletes themselves. Athletes produce the product, drive a large sector of merchandise, and are really the face of the sport. I wanted to look into the different players in the NHL and provide my opinion on who I think are the top 5 most marketable current players, and why I believe that. The top 5, in no particular order are:
- Sidney Crosby: This is a pretty easy choice. Crosby is arguably the best player in the league. He’s a dynamic player—a game change—and he was the face of the league for a long time. Crosby already has a storied career at the age of 28. He captained the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (and was the youngest captain to do so), scored the gold medal winning goal for Canada against the U.S. in the 2010 Olympics, captained Team Canada to another gold medal at the 2014 Olympics, and led Team Canada to a gold medal in the 2015 World Championships. He has won two NHL MVP honors, five All-Star Game selections, three peer-voted best player awards, one goal scoring title, two overall scoring titles, and two leadership awards. He has also amassed 938 points in 707 games played. His resume is impressive, and he has unbelievable talent. On top of that, he carries himself well off the ice, always acting with utmost professionalism for the media. His professionalism and status as one of the game’s best players make Crosby an extremely marketable player.
- Henrik Zetterberg: One unique aspect of the NHL is the large number of European-born players, adding to the leagues cultural diversity. Henrik Zetterberg of the Detroit Red Wings could be a great marketing tool for the NHL. Born in Sweden, Zetterberg can provide representation to a European audience, especially considering he is one of the most successful European players currently in the league. Zetterberg is the captain for one of hockey’s most storied franchises, he is a 2008 Stanley Cup champion, the 2008 Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP, and has won gold medals with Team Sweden at the 2006 World Championships and 2006 Olympics. While he has had a lot of success in the league, what makes Zetterberg a marketable player is the work he does for his community. He is a winner of the NHL Foundation Player award, which is given to the player who applies the core values of hockey to enrich the lives of his community; and also the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, which is given to the player who exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice, and has made significant humanitarian contribution to his community. Zetterberg is known for collecting smoke detectors and canned food for those in need in the metro-Detroit area, as well as making frequent visits to metro-Detroit Children’s hospitals. The image of humanitarian, a European presence, and his impressive NHL resume all combine to make Zetterberg a versatile marketing tool.
- Roberto Luongo: It’s good to include one goalie, right? What makes Luongo most valuable is his personality; he’s got a fantastic sense of humor. Don’t believe me? Watch this video. That type of personality makes him marketable in the sense that it makes him more personable and relatable; fans can feel a bigger connection to a player who is okay with letting loose and showing his silly side. While a lot of star players are always keeping a strict professional image on and off the ice, it’s refreshing to see a personality like Luongo’s. The NHL should use that personality to their advantage in marketing campaigns.
- John Scott: Hear me out on this one. John Scott may not be the most skilled player, nor has he spent a full season in the NHL this year, however I’m not focusing on who I believe are the best players, just the most marketable players. And John Scott became marketable the moment the conspiracy to keep him out of the 2016 All-Star Game surfaced. Scott became a fan favorite, and that was further solidified by his All-Star Game performance and MVP honors for the game. In relation to my post about reaching a wider audience (i.e. female fans), Scott is extremely marketable as a family man. Fans immediately sympathized with his trade across the country with his wife expecting twins. His image as an unsung hero and family man is extremely relatable and marketable to a lot of people making Scott a valuable marketing chip.
- Alexander Ovechkin: The inclusion of Ovechkin as a marketing tool, aligns most closely with the inclusion of Sidney Crosby. “Ovi” is one of the game’s most electrifying players, and one of the greatest goal scorers the NHL has ever seen. He has led the league in goal scoring 6 out of his 11 seasons in the NHL. He has amassed 525 goals and 966 points in 839 career games. He is third among active players in career goals, and 33rd all-time at the age of 30. With potentially 10 years left in the league, Ovechkin has the potential to become one the highest scoring players in NHL history. His potential for immortalizing himself in NHL history can be cleverly utilized by the NHL marketing team for promotional events and campaigns.
These are just the five players I feel should be the focus of promotional and marketing campaigns on the league. Again, this is just personal opinion so it is certainly up for debate.
The NCAA college hockey season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago on April 9 at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, FL. The University of North Dakota walked away with its 8th NCAA national title with a 5-1 victory over Quinnipiac. The frozen four games, as well as the championship games were all broadcasted on ESPN, which has huge marketing advantages as compared to professional hockey. ESPN has a large audience, meaning that tons of viewers could be reached during the frozen four playoff games. This is a great opportunity for the sport of hockey as a whole, since its fan base is not as extensive as other professional sports. Advertisements during the game could help create associations between those brands and the sport of hockey, which can help brand loyalists create affiliations with hockey. Despite the national audience brought in from the event, the city of Tampa Bay saw some great marketing campaigns surrounding college hockey’s biggest event.
Street Laced Marketing, a marketing team based in Tampa, teamed up with the Tampa Sports Commission during the event to bring a lot of fun and excitement around the college hockey event. During the event weekend, there were promotions at local restaurants, live music from several DJs around the arena, and a lot of fan festivities available. This creates not just a sporting event, but just a fun, family atmosphere for the Tampa Bay community. This can set the stage for future NCAA Frozen Four events by creating a multi-faceted experience for fans in attendance. Having events in addition to the games, can help bring in casual fans or unfamiliar audiences looking just to have a fun experience. I believe that the marketing at this year’s frozen four sets a good example for hockey events everywhere, and is a great way to grow the fan base of the sport.
The NHL has arguably the least diverse fan base of any of the four major professional sports leagues (NHL, NBA, NFL, MLB) in America. 68% of the fan base is men, 92% of the fans are white/Caucasian, and over 50% of the fan base makes over $75,000 a year, making NHL fans the richest (and whitest) fan base in America. What causes this lack of diversity, and what can the NHL do to reach a wider range of demographics? I feel that part of the problem lies with the sport itself. Hockey is an expensive sport to get involved with. Leagues fees can range anywhere between $500 and $2000, while equipment itself falls between $1000 and $2000. This is especially expensive for children, who continually grow out of their equipment year after year. I believe that this is part of the reason that the NHL has the richest fans. Another problem lies with the demographics of the players. Most NHL players are white; there are a handful of African-American players, and virtually no Hispanic or Asian players. It can be difficult for different ethnicities to get hooked on to a sport where their cultures/ethnicities have little to no representation. So again, this begs the question, what can the NHL do to reach a wider audience?
For starters, I think the World Cup of Hockey debuting this September could help. This can create a sense of national pride, much like the FIFA World Cup, perhaps encouraging other nations to get involved with the sport, and eventually the competition. Having the World Cup will also help at least gain exposure in other global markets. Another idea could stem from the organizations and its players. One example I have in mind could be for teams and players to do community outreach, and perhaps host free camps or clinics for their community’s youth. This could particularly be beneficial with inner city populations, perhaps seen in larger cities with larger minority populations such as Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Incorporating free camps, or player outreach to these populations, could promote the sport amongst wider ethnic populations, and diversify not only the fans of the sport, but also its participants. Another area that needs to be addressed is the number of female audience members. While the NHL has a higher percentage of female fans than the MLB and NBA, it is significantly behind the NFL. To gain more female fans, the NHL could sell more of a family experience. For example, the MLB has a lot of successes with kid’s clubs, which the NHL could create and/or expand on. The creation of the new professional women’s hockey league could be a stepping-stone to adding more female fans to the sport. The NHL should partner with the women’s professional league and help that league expand to new hockey markets and gain more fans.
These are just some ideas of how the NHL could expand its audience. Obviously there are tons ideas that can be suggested, this is just my personal perspective on the issue.
Staying on the topic of partnerships, the NHL introduced a new partnership this season (2015-16) with Major League Baseball Advanced Media. While NHL GameCenter Live was once an entity solely of the National Hockey League, it has now handed over its online streaming to MLBAM. Much like the partnership with Adidas, this is a huge victory for the NHL. Major League Baseball is perhaps the most popular sports league in America, and its online streaming, MLB.TV, is a huge success. The NHL turned over its digital marketing, including the website development, to the MLBAM. In doing so, the NHL has gained digital media from a well-established sports marketing institution, meaning that the content and design is well-suited for the target audiences. In terms of revenue, the NHL has tapped in to new markets with this partnership. There was a deal for fans to purchase MLB.TV and NHL GameCenter Live as a package available to U.S. residents for a one-time fee of $139.95. This package gives fans full access to streaming any NHL or MLB game. This is especially useful for fans wanting to watch out-of-market broadcasts. Since the MLB has a much larger fan base than the NHL, this package deal allowed the NHL to reach new audiences by allowing the tandem purchase of MLB.TV and NHL GameCenter Live. Fans of the MLB who regularly purchase an MLB.TV subscription, could also gain access to NHL games, perhaps exposing them to a league they did not necessarily follow as heavily. This opportunity allowed the NHL to gain new fans, or at least entice a larger amount of people to purchase an NHL GameCenter Live subscription. It seems that the NHL is making great strides in partnerships that benefit the league’s marketing efforts.
In the fall of 2015, the National Hockey League announced that it had signed a seven-year contract with Adidas beginning in 2017-18, making Adidas the official outfitter of NHL uniforms. In other words, beginning in the 2017-18 season, Adidas will be making all of the jerseys for the NHL. Adidas has traditionally been linked with soccer (football), but will now be making its way into hockey. From a marketing standpoint, this seems like a huge victory for the National Hockey League. Jerseys are the highest selling piece of merchandise for the NHL, and linking such a global brand as Adidas with those uniforms should help continue that trend, if not bolster it. The NHL has perhaps the smallest U.S. following of any of the four major sports, and perhaps introducing Adidas into the fold could increase merchandising sales. Furthermore, the NHL can utilize Adidas as a marketing tool, or perhaps partner, as Adidas clearly has been able to capture a wide global audience. Even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman stated that he’s “thrilled by the resources Adidas will dedicate to the partnership.”
Some fans are fearing that Adidas will try to introduce corporate advertisements onto the NHL jerseys. Adidas has done that with many soccer teams, such as Premier League teams, however Gary Bettman addressed this claim in September stating that “The history, tradition and respect that goes with NHL sweaters is something that we and Adidas are very respectful of.” While jersey advertisements could bring in tons of revenue and marketing opportunities for the NHL, it seems best to honor the current fan base by keeping advertisements off of jerseys. While breaking into new markets and gaining new fans is important, it is also important to maintain and keep current fans happy.
Overall, the NHL jersey partnership with Adidas seems to be a great marketing move for the NHL. A large, global brand such as Adidas can bring many resources and opportunities to the table for the NHL to help grow the NHL brand, as well as the Adidas brand.