Friday, August 20, 2010

The new faces of NHL marketing efforts might look like ... women and Justin Bieber?

Although it hasn't stirred much attention outside of Twitter and PuckDaddy (Yahoo's NHL blog), a grass-roots campaign by blogs such as Chicks Who Give a Puck has led to the NHL opening discussions this summer directly with female fans, who feel that the NHL just don't understand their main female demographic. (Females make up at least 35% of the NHL's demographic and that number is expected to continue growing.) Although the NHL has been producing female-aimed products for several years, hardcore female hockey fans have had enough, and asked, "Why does female hockey gear need to be pink, glittery, or shiny?"

The NHL has actually responded fairly quickly to the outcry over some of their most recent product releases - a very smart marketing move on their part. After all, women make 85% of all brand purchases. Newsweek recently carried an article titled "The Richer Sex: Companies had better cater to women".

In short, women have money and they're willing - and eager - to spend it, but they want to know that they're spending it on quality products that match their taste. They dislike the assumption that because they're women that they're going to automatically snap up anything that's pink or sparkly. They want to know that the T-shirt or jersey they buy for themselves is going to last just as long as the one they buy for their boyfriend. And most of all, they want equal amounts of variety - and they want to have it in sizes that fit and are flattering to their bodies, be it extra-petite or plus-sized.

Women are also seeking to increase the respect given to them when it comes to sports, particularly as fans of a male-dominated sport like hockey. Serious female fans are against being marketed to primarily though trying to sell the players as hunks of beefcake; and they find the idea of the skimpily dressed "Ice Girls", which many teams now sport, as demeaning or belittling towards women, reducing the image of women in a rink to cheerleaders on ice.

While these passionate female fans have two thing correct - the NHL could do more to provide a wider variety of quality products aimed at women, and they should also improve their marketing relationships with women - those same hardcore, die-hard fans should also remember that the NHL will not - and should not - entirely eliminate the "pink, sparkly" part of their catalog.

Obviously, the NHL must be selling enough of these styles of clothing that it encourages them to keep selling more; otherwise, they would've already been trying to figure this out long before this summer. These girly designs are probably most popular with the next demographic that the NHL should look to bring strongly into the fold: teenage/young adult fans.

Hockey fans know who Kevin Weekes is: a journeyman goalie who spent 11 seasons with the NHL before retiring in 2009, and who has since become a very popular color commentor on Hockey Night in Canada, and a studio analyst for NHL on the Fly. Weekes is also very active on Twitter (@KevinWeekes, sharing not only commentary and analysis about the sport he loves, but the kind of random observations, Twitpics, and just conversation that fans are responding to in droves.

En route to his vacation, Weekes ended up delayed in Toronto and ran into Canadian teenage pop sensation Justin Bieber. In case you've been living under a rock, the 16-year-old Bieber has had two platinum albums in the past year and a half. His Twitter account (@justinbieber) has over 4.6 million followers, making him the sixth-most-followed Tweeter on the social media site after Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Ashton Kutcher, Ellen, and Barack Obama.

So, Weekes being the media-savvy guy that he is, naturally sent out a Tweet about the chance encounter: "Flight delayed to Barbados but chilling with @justinbieber-love this young guy-very funny and mature !!"

Like many Canadian boys, Bieber played hockey; so doubtless he thought it was cool to meet Weekes. He even sent out a Tweet with his opinion: "Yo chillin with @kevinweekes NHL goalie.. Hes tight! follow him."

If you've ever doubted the power of 1) the internet or 2) teenage fandom, consider this: after Bieber's tweet about Weekes, Weekes followers nearly doubled from around 8,300 to over 16,000 in a matter of hours. (PuckDaddy noted that at one point, Weekes was gaining over 1,000 new followers per hour.)

To put this in perspective, the NHL's own Twitter account (@NHL) has just shy of 416,000 followers. With just 64 characters, a pop star gave a hockey broadcaster nearly 8,000 new followers. The NHL demographic fits comfortably into a range from the mid-20s through the late 40s. One would not say that the same demographic is Justin Bieber's target audience.

But Justin Bieber's target demographics - the teenage/young adult audience - is definitely one that the NHL should set their sights on next.

True fans of any sport will tell you that "every fandom has to start somewhere". Most long-term fans of sports learned their favorite sports via family osmosis - being brought to games as a kid and being raised in a given sport's atmosphere. Maybe their friends or their spouse is into the sport, and it gets new people into the sport. (Yes, even those who first get attracted because they notice a player is "hot" but then they get hooked into the excitement of the sport.)

Hockey is traditionally a "northern sport"; so you obviously aren't going to be driving around Miami in the middle of winter and see kids playing pond hockey. However, there are many variants of hockey - broom hockey, street hockey, roller hockey - that can feed and lead directly into an interest in ice hockey. The NHL's expansion into the non-traditonal, Southern markets such as Phoenix, Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta and Dallas has had varying degrees of success over the years.

Some of those newer teams were created by moving teams such as the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques, and Winnipeg Jets out of small but struggling markets - markets which, despite not having local NHL teams for a over a dozen years, are now once again clammoring for the opportunity to show that they can and will support an NHL franchise. Minnesota lost its franchise to Dallas in 1993, but demand for the sport remained high enough that a new team, the Wild, was created in 2000.

This year, the NHL Draft was held in Los Angeles - a first for the NHL - and one of the top 30 players picked was a native Californian. These are both excellent signs for the continued rise of popularity of hockey, especially in "non-traditional" markets.

A new, younger generation of fans is waiting to be wooed by the NHL. They live in both these growing Southern markets as well as the more traditional ones. But it makes just as much sense to ensure the NHL is going after the youth segment as it does the female portion of the market. Today's youth have more economic buying muscle than any other previous generation at the same age had. Additionally, as we've seen demonstrated by the power of Bieber, today's teenagers fit perfectly into the NHL's incredibly tech-savvy demographic.

And since some of today's brightest NHL stars are in the 18-24 age range - Toews, Kane, Crosby, Tyler, Hall - it's a very easy connection to make to the youth market. The Blackhawks was the youngest team in the league last year with an average age of just shy of 26; most teams average between 26-30 years old. It's also the kind of sport that fosters teamwork, hard work and dedication; a sport that rewards performance instead of wooing talent based on potential future payoffs; and has little room for giant egos as often displayed in the NFL, NBA or MLB. The guy who is going to mark - correction, has already marked - his generation of hockey players is Jonathan Toews, who at just 22 years of age is a Stanley Cup-winning, Gold medal Olympian and team Captain, not to mention who comes across as a nice, humble guy whose primary focus is his team and success.

Toews isn't alone, however. Every team has a "face of its franchise", and it would benefit the NHL as a whole to show as much diversity as possible among its players, instead of simply focusing on less than a handful.

Without a doubt, the NHL has recognized its internet-savvy fan base and they have done quite a lot to improve relationships with fans, and to bring the image of hockey into the 21st century, especially after the damage created by the 2004-05 lockout. While the "old school" fan base certainly needs to also be connected with, the NHL should continue to find new and creative ways to help bring both more women and youth into the fandom.


  1. Justin Bieber...useful for something other than fodder for jokes...

    I have a question about all these new followers: how many of them are actually going to bother to learn the sport of hockey....8000 followers...of which maybe 100-200 will learn the game...not that I have a problem with that...but knowing the truth behind the numbers is something that means a lot to me

  2. Well, all fandom starts somewhere. Bieber's Canadian... Canadians like hockey... most of his fans probably like hockey to begin with. ;)

    But anyway, even if say the NHL only picks up 100-200 new fans, that's still a couple hundred new fans. Not sure how they would quantify the results and say, "Yes, these are Bieber fans-turned hockey fans."

    It's more about reaching out to the younger generation and getting them involved and interested in hockey - sow that seed of interest.

  3. If you want to be Crazy Cool, dig up some Cleveland Barons gear. There doesn't appear to be a ton of it out there compared to say, the Whalers, but since they lasted all of 2 seasons, not too surprising. Their sad tale may be read here:


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