Friday, April 9, 2010

Hockey's marketing growning pains

Consider this for a moment: even as a hockey fan, who do you know more about - Tiger Woods, or your favorite hockey player? I don't even like football, and I could probably name you half a dozen players off the top of my head. Since Wayne Gretzky's heyday around 20 years ago, can you think of another hockey player that has transcended the sport's fan base to become a national sport icon in the U.S.? (I don't have to ask that for Canada; anybody who knows anything about hockey or watched the Olympics knows that hockey is THE national sport of choice there.)

If you watch the NHL network, I'm sure you've seen the "NHL Center Ice" commercial many times by now. If you haven't, here it is:


At least the NHL finally realized over the past ten years that there's hockey fans all over the country - and that they're even in places where hockey is not a "traditional" local sport. The sport's expansion over the past twenty years into markets such as Phoenix, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Dallas supports the same idea.

After the lockout of the 2004-2005 season, the future of professional hockey may have appeared somewhat grim. Hockey's demographic, after all, has always remained fairly narrow, favoring populations in cold northern countries like Canada, the northern U.S., Russia, Finland, Sweden, etc. Remember the Jamaican bobsled team? Imagine the shock if an ice hockey team showed up to the Olympics from Ethiopia or Sumatra.

It's not like the NHL marketing department wasn't aware of the issues; after the lockout season there was certainly plenty of analysis about how NHL marketing could be recoup from the fan animosity caused by the missed season.

The NHL continues to struggle to find its niche among prime time sports on TV. Even during the Olympics - which you think NBC would've used to their benefit to play up the popularity of the sport and thus draw new fans to watch the Stanley Cup playoffs - NBC dropped the ball, made it difficult for hockey fans to figure out which of their affiliates each evening's games would be broadcast on (if at all).

Hockey has the longest season of any professional sport. Pre-season matchups start in September, the regular season kicks off the first week of October, the regular season wraps up in mid-April, and the playoffs and the Stanley Cup final stretch into June. Thirty teams each play around 80-82 games per season (2-4 games per week), meaning That means you only have roughly a 3-month window where there is no hockey. If the lengthy season isn't enough for marketing execs to want to sit up and take notice, perhaps the finances should: marketing research has indicated that visitors to the NHL's website have higher incomes overall than the MLB, NFL or NBA sites.

Compare that to baseball, which has a month of Spring Training (March) and whose season runs April through early October. However, baseball teams are workhorses, packing in 162 games over some 25-26 weeks of play.

Football starts its preseason in late August and their prime season runs mid-September through early January, culminating in the Super Bowl at the end of January. Heck, football teams only play one game a week, roughly 16 games in a whole season! Amazingly, that same site that pointed out that while the NHL attracts the most affluent fans, the NFL official website attracts the most fans - more than 11 million unique visitors per month (more than twice NHL.com's traffic).

Since hockey players only get three months off before their new season starts, you can imagine that it's going to be tough to sell them on the idea of giving up any of that precious off time to take part in marketing events - which means the NHL has to be all the more savvy about how they handle their marketing the rest of the year.

Perhaps hockey's largest drawback in attracting new fans and/or new players is that it is an expensive sport to learn to play. Unlike baseball or basketball or football, where all you need is a single ball and perhaps one other piece of equipment - glove, bat or helmet - hockey requires an entire body worth of gear, not to mention the cost of the sticks, skates - and oh yes, ice time and skating lessons. Granted, if you get kids attracted to hockey, they can at least learn some basics by playing street hockey or inline-skate hockey. But eventually, they need to get on the ice.

In what is perhaps the NHL's most interesting - and may be one of their smartest moves, they started a program called Hockey is for Everyone™, the goal of which is "committed to offering children of all backgrounds opportunities to play hockey". Hockey is notoriously, shall we say, very "white bread" -- minority players (and fans) are still rare. (Again, see where hockey is most popular: cold, northern states and countries.)



Hockey marketing also has an issue in that it is basically preaching to the choir. Hey, I love the NHL commercials I see on Versus and during Comcast's SportsNet local hockey broadcasts. They're very well-executed and they help build an interest in the sport beyond the hometown favorites. But if they're only aired during hockey games, then who's seeing them other than people who are already hockey fans?

Are these commercials airing during other primetime sports events? Are they aired regularly on ESPN? Are they showing up during primetime TV shows?

It must be noted that perhaps more than any other sport, the NHL has readily embraced what is known as "new media" - that is, the internet: Facebook, Twitter, bloggers, team sites, etc. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the statistics that the NHL's fans are a bit more affluent. The NHL provides tons of footage online, and allows that content to be shared. In the past couple of years, the NHL has expanded on that, featuring videos (ranging from in-depth interviews to fluff pieces) of various players, both new and reknown.

That being said, hockey has an image problem.

In a completely unscientific, casual, off-the-cuff poll, I asked a random selection of about a dozen people if they liked hockey, and if not, what was it about the sport that turned them off. As a follow-up question, I asked them what other sports they did like to watch.

I wasn't really surprised to hear the reason most people didn't watch hockey was because they thought the sport "is too violent". Oddly enough, most of the people who said they thought hockey was violent also claimed to be pro football fans, which just left me shaking my head at the paradox.

Let's not deny it - there is a level of violence to hockey that's more than say, baseball or soccer. But there's certainly less violence than football. And even the players will admit that some of the fighting is staged. (Maybe not WWF-level of staged, but staged, nonetheless.) But there seems to be a collective memory about hockey that involves, somehow, vast amounts of bloodshed, fistfights, and bone-crunching body checking.

Today's teams put far more emphasis on finesse, skill, speed and puck handling than they do on the older ideals of being very "physical". Improved safety equipment and rules are helping to cut down on the injury rates.

But think about it - when's the last time you heard a news article about a hockey player attempting to take a loaded gun on a plane, or beating up their wife, or coming out about their steroid abuse, or running a dogfighting ring, or any of the stories we've seen related to football, basketball or baseball players? When we do hear them, they're few and far between. Hockey is a team sport which has no patience for prima donnas, fly guys, showboating, bling-bling, or egos - after all, as a player, you rack up +/- points not only on how you perform, but also in assists. You show up, you play hard, you play for the team, and then - what might be surprising to non-hockey fans - off the ice, hockey players are some of the nicest, politest, down-to-earth athletes you could hope to meet.

After the lockout season (2004-05), hockey began taking lessons from baseball and especially football marketing - making its advertising colorful, exciting, and relevant. By gaining the cooperation of the players base, it began building its players' identities up to the general hockey fanbase. If you're a hockey fan, you probably know who Sid "the Kid" Crosby is, even if you're not a Penguins fan, for example. If you live in Chicago, you're probably well-aware of who Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are by now. (Rocky Wirtz and his marketing team certainly have one of the savviest teams when it comes to marketing their players.)

The past several years have also seen the rollout of the "ice girls" for most, if not all teams in the league. Obviously, there's no place to put cheerleaders on an ice rink, so this is the closest that hockey gets - scantily-clad women who come out and wave to the crowds during breaks, and who help out with promotions both off and on the ice. Since hockey players are covered from head to toe in heavily padded equipment, the ice girls are meant to bring sex appeal to the still-heavily-male-dominated hockey fan demographic.

Female hockey fans are less likely to look favorably upon the "puck bunnies", as they insist it's hard enough to gain respect as a female sports fan. But the NHL - or at least some of its clubs - have also have a strong effort to embrace the female part of the fan base through such means as female fan clubs (e.g., the Scarlet Capitals) and by putting more emphasis on the sex appeal of the athletes themselves. The most recent issue of Blackhawks Magazine, for example, featured a two-page spread of each team member, with one page showing the athlete on the ice and a variety of stock questions, and the other page showing the player out of uniform but dressed in a piece of fan gear (t-shirts, sweatshirts, etc).

There's nothing wrong with making hockey sexier, if it helps bring in more fans. They might bandwagon the fandom because they find one of the players cute, but if they come to love and respect the game, that's good.

In the meantime, the NHL has to expand their efforts to market beyond the people who are already fans - to continue to make the game more accessible, to build excitement around the sport, especially in smaller markets where the "big name" hockey in town are the AHL and ECHL teams. As most farm teams have a direct affiliation with a larger NHL team, those relationships should be capitalized upon and played up more.

This is an exciting season, too - a perfect time for each fan to reach out to a friend who has misconceptions about the game, and show them just how exciting and worthwhile a game hockey is to follow.

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