Tuesday, May 17, 2011

NHL Marketing success - and failure - in a "Year without a superstar"

Over the past five years, the NHL has spent a lot of time building up the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin/Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals rivalry -- so much so to the point that many fans across the league have simply hit a saturation point, and spent a lot of time on Twitter and other social media this season saying "Enough!"

There is no such thing as a "perfect" face of a league. Even the great Wayne Gretzky back in his day had his detractors and his haters; so it should be no surprise that a player like Sidney Crosby can serve to polarize fans - or that his fanbase can extent far beyond the team he plays for. There's also no doubt that Crosby is a fantastic hockey talent; a record-breaker with many great years of play ahead of him.

Ovechkin and Crosby entered the NHL in the same season - 2005-06. Ovechkin was the 1st overall pick in the 2004 Draft; Crosby was 1st overall in 2005. The two players are two years apart in age, took different roads to the NHL, but both took to the ice in the fall of 2005 with the weight of their respective franchises upon their young shoulders. Not surprising at all, then, that the NHL would favor attempting to pair these two up into a rivalry.

It's harder to build a true, honest rivalry, however, when your teams don't share a division, even if they're in the same conference. The Penguins play in the Atlantic division; and the Capitals have played in the Southeast since 1998. Teams who share a division see each other more. But, perhaps through marketing more so than any other means, a rivalry was built. 

During those seasons, the team only faced each other in the playoffs once: the 2008-09 season, when the Penguins knocked the Capitals out of the Conference Semifinals en route to winning the Stanley Cup. The teams see each other four times a season, and animosity has been built, as was highlighted this past season when HBO's 24/7 went behind the scenes to take a look at the two teams en route to their meeting in the 2011 Winter Classic. 

Interestingly enough, it wasn't the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry that was the focus of the series, although HBO certainly touched upon it. No, HBO did an excellent job of drawing a picture of each team as a whole, spending time looking at a wide variety of players. That was an important decision, because hockey is a team sport. Any truly successful hockey team must get contributions across the team as a whole. In fact, HBO did such a good job at taking a look into the NHL world that they won an Emmy for their efforts - for "Outstanding Edited Sports Special" - and left hockey fans clamoring for more. 

During the Winter Classic, superstar Sidney Crosby suffered a concussion, although it wasn't until days later - and after he'd played another game, and taken a second head shot - that it was diagnosed. He hasn't played since, although he got back on the ice for practice late in the season, and it was hoped that if the Penguins had a deep run, that he would be able to play in later rounds. Currently, Crosby's prognosis remains as murky as the concussion he suffered; he's had another setback, and now the hope is that he will be healthy and ready to play when the 2011-12 season begins.

How good is Crosby? He only played half a season, yet he was easily on pace for a 115+ point season, and led the league with 32 G, 34 A, 66 points for long after his injury took him off the ice.  It was only in March when he finally dropped off the top-5 charts for points and scoring.

Meanwhile, down in Washington, Alex Ovechkin slumped this year. His 85 points for the season were still impressive by any stretch; only six players scored more this year. But for Ovechkin, that was a drop off of an average 25 points from his previous three seasons, and his worst year as an NHL player. While his assists remained high, his goals took a nosedive - just 32 this season with a mere 8.7 s%, compared to an average 57/12.9 sv% vs the last few years.

From a marketing standpoint, you don't want to spread yourself too thin; but as the NHL proved this year, you also don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. What do you do when the two superstars that you've built all your advertising and marketing efforts around are A) sidelined for half the season with an injury; or B) still playing, but having the worst year of their career?

The All-Star Game this year was probably the best in years due to a variety of reasons. Foremost, it allowed the NHL to showcase what was perhaps a surprising success story: the intense dedication of the Carolina fan base; the great atmosphere surrounding the 'Canes; and it allowed the league to show off that yes, hockey could be - and is - successful and popular in the South. The Hurricanes' fans have long been overdue the recognition. More importantly, with players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and other star-quality players sidelined with injuries, it allowed many unheralded, under-appreciated players to step into the spotlight -- like Patrick Sharp (Blackhawks); Corey Perry (Ducks); Rick Nash (Blue Jackets); and Shea Weber (Predators). The ASG highlighted a rookie class overloaded with talent such as Logan Couture, Jeff Skinner, Michael Grabner, and Kevin Shattenkirk. The event was handled well, and it made for one of the most entertaining ASGs in years.

Without the typical names (Crosby, Ovechkin) sitting atop the individual standings, the top of the scoring chart was instead filled through the end of the season with names like Daniel Sedin, Marty St. Louis, Corey Perry, Steven Stamkos, Jarome Iginla, Teemu Selanne, Patrick Sharp, Ryan Kesler, Patrick Marleau, Bobby Ryan, Ryan Getzlaf, Claude Giroux. Where are most of these guys for league-wide marketing materials? How few of them have contracts with major sports equipment brands? 

How many have become household names (in hockey households, anyway) thanks to this season?

The Western Conference has often felt like the redheaded stepchild of the hockey world. More attention is focused on Eastern Conference teams. Six of the eight teams to play in the Winter Classic have been Eastern teams. Half the league is located in one time zone, and it is not surprising that far-Western teams are often overlooked. 

But this year, a lot changed.

The Chicago Blackhawks roared back from their dark ages and won the Stanley Cup last spring, revitalizing one of the largest fanbases in the NHL and drawing in new fans. This year, the Presidents' Trophy was earned by the Vancouver Canucks. Both the individual standings and the nominees for this year's NHL Awards are loaded with Western Conference hockey players. The first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs were thrilling across the league, but it was the Chicago-Vancouver matchup that proved the most exciting of the series. The Eastern Conference cleaned up pretty early in the second round, and again, the best series of that round was between Western teams - the Sharks-Red Wings series; although the Canucks-Predators series helped put Nashville's hockey team - and fanbase - on the map as well.

It seems like most people are predicting whoever survives the Western Conference Finals will take home the Cup this year; but there's still plenty of hockey to be played.

The Western Conference tends to be the stronger, more competitive conference. Whoever places 8th in the West is always several points ahead of at least 2-3 teams in the final top 8 teams in the East. Yet it always feels like the Western Conference just isn't getting as much attention or coverage as the teams in the East get. 

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been, to a lesser extent, "secondary" faces of the NHL. So, too, are players like Steven Stamkos, Ryan Kesler, Ryan Miller - players who have become known thanks to their achievements. This season gave us more players like that - lots of players like that. 

Yet it was only very late in the season when the NHL seemed to acknowledge that ok, Crosby wasn't coming back this season, and oops, Ovechkin isn't playing that hot. Fans on Twitter continued to snark about both players continuing to appear in advertising; but the fact is that once you've committed to an advertising campaign, you're not going to simply throw it out the window. It even took them a while to update the ASG commercials to remove those players who were injured or otherwise not attending.

Here's the really interesting part: despite not having their top "face of the NHL" player for half the season, the NHL was proud to announce on April 13th that they had their "Best-ever business year highlighted by record revenue." 

A few highlights:
- "Dramatic" increases in sponsorship (+33%) and merchandise sales (+15%);
- "landmark" corporate investment in major league events (Winter Classic, etc);
- "impressive" digital growth;
- Expected league revenue to top more than $2.9 billion (14.8% increase);
- highest-ever ASG ratings;
- 17 out of 30 teams saw TV ratings increase.

Likewise, the initial returns on the Playoffs are quite promising too - with both TV ratings and online visitors of NHL sites showing "substantial" increases. 

In short, while it doesn't hurt to have a couple superstar faces to head up your product line, what's really going to keep people coming back for more is having a good product all the way across the board. Yes, having two easily-identifiable faces can help draw in new fans. But where the NHL fails in marketing is by overlooking the Western Conference for much of the season. Granted, to a certain level, teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings are so entrenched in their markets and so well-marketed by their own teams that they're the hockey equivalent of Coke and Pepsi. But as any marketing professional will tell you, even the best-known, oldest-established brands in the market will see sales slumps if you don't continue to remind the market that hey, our brands are out there.

The NHL also does a disservice to those fan bases that simply don't get enough attention. While the NHL might have hoped for another "high-profile" Stanley Cup series (ie. Blackhawks-Flyers), they might end up being pleasantly surprised by a matchup such as Vancouver-Tampa Bay, or San Jose-Boston. Die-hard fans continue to watch; newer fans discover new teams, new markets, new stars. 

When it comes to sports, league superstars are what marketers refer to as "cash cows": reliable products that help draw new consumers in. But every player attracts their own share of fans. Every team is worthy of notice, of being promoted. If the league genuinely wants to keep hockey alive in markets like Miami, Atlanta, and Phoenix, they need to improve the marketing of the league and the sport in those areas. Teams like Carolina, Washington, San Jose, and Los Angeles have proven what is possible.

The second half of the 2010-11 season might be remembered as the year without a superstar. But the NHL wasn't without its share of stars all across the league - many of them underappreciated until they had the opportunity to break out late in this season. Here's hoping the NHL highlights many more of these players next season.

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