Friday, November 11, 2011

Taking a look at the marketing impact of the NHL ASG & Draft

Here at, we will occasionally review ongoing marketing efforts by the NHL. Today we're taking a look at the All-Star Game and the Draft.

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The biggest marketing event of the NHL year is without a doubt the annual All-Star Game. Here, the most heavily-concentrated crop of this year's top performers are on display not only for fans across the league, but for those sponsors who attend the ASG - one of the most coveted and hard-to-obtain tickets of the year (short, of course, of playoff tickets and the Winter Classic). The All-Star Game is a mid-season break for the top stars of the league to mix and mingle off the ice; it's an unabashed talent showcase. Unlike MLB, the outcome of the ASG has no bearing on anything in the season - no playoff home ice advantage or anything else. It's a fun weekend for fans and sponsors; and those players who don't get committed to go to the ASG get to have a week or so off.

On Thursday, the NHL announced the 2012 All-Star Fan Ballot for the 2012 Tim Hortons NHL® All-Star Game, which will take place in Ottawa during the last weekend in January. The fan ballot helps decide 3 forwards, 2 defensemen and 1 goalie which will be guaranteed to go to the All-Star Game; the rest of the players are determined by the NHL.

The annual ballot always raises a lot of questions and arguments from fans across the league. When the ballot gets announced in November, it does not always accurately reflect the current state of the NHL.

For example, this year, Sidney Crosby is on the ballot. He's one of the faces of the NHL, and were he healthy and playing, there'd be no question about him being on the ballot. However, Crosby hasn't played a game since early last January, where he took a concussion that took him out of the 2011 All-Star Game, then he didn't play the rest of the season, and he hasn't played a game yet this season. While it's a nice symbolic gesture to put him on the ballot as the face of the NHL and in hopes that he'll be playing soon, the fact remains that he hasn't even returned to season play yet. He might return next week; or next month; or next February. Fans will vote him in anyway - he won by a landslide last year - so he should basically just have a career bye into the game.

Additionally, it's not clear how close to the release date of the ballot that the final ballot is tweaked, taking into consideration the current season's performance. Is 15 games into the season enough of a sample size to accurately gauge a player's performance, especially when many of the best players in the league often "start the season slow"? This year's ballot shows more of an awareness than last year's, but there's still plenty of question marks.
-- For example, Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues made it onto the ballot. He hasn't had an "all star" season since 2009-10, when he helped carry Montréal deep into the playoffs. He was decent but not spectacular last year for the Blues, and he's started off the current season at 2-6-0 with a .882 sv% and 2.77 GAA. Meanwhile, Chicago's Corey Crawford, who is 7-4-2, was 4th in Calder voting for 2011, and was named to the 2011 NHL All-Rookie Team, didn't even get on the ballot. Nor did Detroit's Jimmy Howard, who is 6-3-1 with a .928 sv% and 1.79 GAA, and who has consistently been a vital force in net for the Red Wings over the past three seasons.

-- Dustin Byfuglien made it into the All-Star Game last season, but his performance tanked in the second half of the year, and he still hasn't returned to the form he displayed last fall or in the 2010 playoffs.

-- Kris Versteeg has been the standout star for the Florida Panthers so far this season - he even notched a hat trick last night against Winnipeg - and yet he was left off the ballot.

These are just a few examples of players who got on or were left off the ballot that left fans scratching their heads.

Probably the top complaint about the All-Star Game is that the ballot - and more commonly, the final selection of players - doesn't always reflect every team in the market. It's all well and good to want to sell sponsors and newer fans on the "faces" of the NHL. If that's the case, the NHL should just make 5 of the available slots that are automatic "byes" into the ASG, and state that up front. ("This year's byes are Crosby, Ovechkin, (player), (player), and (player); no need to vote for them, they're already in!").

It is important for fans of every team in the NHL to feel they're represented by at least one player every year - especially the smaller and untraditional markets where fans and teams often feel overlooked. Even Columbus, sludging along at the basement of the league with just five points, has acknowledged talent in the form of team captain Rick Nash. The league can use the fan vote as a barometer which might be the most popular among equally talented players from a single team when selecting, but there should, at minimum, be one player from every team represented at the ASG.

Filling in the other "missing" teams by inviting their star rookies (who only play in the "super skills" showcase, not the game itself) doesn't make up for leaving established players out of the actual ASG, and is a slight to fans who support those teams, as well as those players who're star performers on the less-stellar teams. This year, there are at least 3 players from every team in the market represented on the ballot; but will at least one from every team make it into the final weekend lineup?

It is in the league's best interests to spread the publicity around as much as possible, not only for its member cities/teams, but those players as well. Fans in other markets might enjoy seeing Sidney Crosby (or any other top-name player) in the ASG, sure - but they'll connect with and tune in to support players from their home market more. (As a reminder, the ASG has no bearing on anything else in the league - it doesn't count for points; it doesn't determine home ice. It is simply a talent showcase.) Not every team's top player shines as brightly as those at the very top of the NHL pyramid, but the important thing to remember about hockey is that it's a team sport. Unlike baseball, where two or three powerhouse players can help carry a team high in the standings, it takes a team to make things happen. "Hockey is for everyone," says the NHL slogan. The NHL should start by ensuring that every team in the league is represented at its All-Star Game.

When talking about the value of reaching out to every market in the NHL, we shouldn't forget about the other half of the equation: location, location, location. This is something that applies not only to the All-Star Game, but also to one of the other major talent showcases within the NHL - the annual Draft, which takes place in mid-July.

It would seem simple and obvious to make a few rules about the location of both the ASG and the Draft:

1) The event (be it ASG or Draft) should have to take place in every NHL market before that market can be a repeat host.

2) There should be a minimum of several years (at least 5-10) before the same city/market can host the other. IE, if Carolina hosted the ASG in 2011, they should not be eligible to host the Draft until at least 2016 or 2021. (But more on that in a moment).

3) The ASG and the Draft should always take place in opposing conferences, and change each subsequent year. IE, if the ASG is held in an Eastern city this winter, the Draft should take place in the West. Then next year, the ASG should take place in the West, and the Draft in the East. Spread the attention around; Western Conference fans already feel like they're the redheaded stepchilden of the league.

This also ties into the Winter Classic. While Gary Bettman has openly acknowledged that a primary driver for the Winter Classic is revenue and ratings (which automatically heavily skews the WC in the favor of Original Six and northeastern teams), the same team should not be taking place in the WC within at least 4-5 seasons. The bounty of participating in the WC needs to be spread around the league; teams should not make 2 appearances in the Winter Classic within just 3 seasons.

What would be a simple way to help boost attention to the Winter Classic? Make one of the teams participating be the defending Stanley Cup Champions.

The league can give climate as a legitimate reason why the Winter Classic will never happen in "untraditional" markets like Raleigh, Dallas or San Jose; the effort to sustain skate-worthy outdoor ice conditions in these kind of markets is near-impossible, even in the heart of winter. But neither the All-Star Game nor the Draft require these kind of superhuman efforts - they're both held indoors - and need to be rotated throughout the league.

Both the All-Star Game and the Draft are a boost in several ways to their markets. The most immediate impact is financial: drawing in a large number of out-of-area visitors who will spend on local accommodations, travel, and food/entertainment. But the other half of the financial picture is the attention that these events draw to the markets which host them, especially the All-Star Game. Does Pittsburgh need the additional attention which the Draft will bring them? No, they are already a thriving hockey market. Would a city like Phoenix or Tampa Bay benefit from some publicity? Of course they would.

Let's take last year's ASG in Raleigh as a prime example. As the media descended upon Carolina en masse, though many of them had been there before, they were not expecting the warm and enthusiastic hockey atmosphere they encountered. Raleigh and its fans were showcased, and not only were there a lot of media raving about the building, the fans, and the atmosphere, but a lot of out-of-market fans who tuned in declared they were putting Raleigh on their list of NHL cities to visit. For a smaller, untraditional market like Raleigh, it was a chance to show off the depth of their fan dedication, and to show that hockey had indeed become popular in a Southern market.

The residual effect of the ASG may be a bit more challenging to measure, but undeniably, the extra NHL media coverage in these kinds of markets helps raise awareness of the sport and the league.

There's some interesting facts to note when reviewing the locations of the ASG and the Draft over the past 30-ish years.

Of those cities which have hosted the All-Star Game:

-- Just 12 of the past 30 All Star Games were held in Western Conference cities.

-- The two cities that have repeated since 1980 have been Los Angeles and Montréal.

-- Teams/cities which have not hosted the ASG in the past 31 years (or more): Anaheim, Buffalo, Columbus, Nashville, Phoenix, Winnipeg. (Ottawa is hosting their first in 2012).

-- Only 10 of the past 31 NHL Drafts were held in Western Conference cities.

-- Teams/cities that haven't hosted the Draft: Anaheim, Chicago, Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, NYC (neither Rangers nor Islanders), Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Jose, Tampa Bay, Washington, Winnipeg.

Of those cities who hosted the Draft:

-- Buffalo, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Toronto and Vancouver have all hosted twice since the Draft first left Montréal.

-- After hosting the Draft for 21 consecutive years, Montréal has hosted 3 more times since the Draft started changing cities.

-- A number of teams that didn't even exist 20 years ago have hosted the Draft; but Chicago and New York (NYR) haven't hosted it yet. You'd think the Original Six cities would've all gotten a nod by now.

The NHL should aim to give the ASG and the Draft over the next several years to those cities who have not had the opportunity to host them. While many NHL teams are in buildings that are multi-purpose, any event planner will tell you it's possible to get exactly what dates you want, so long as you're planning far enough out. There's no reason in the world that the NHL can't sit down and draft a schedule for the next 30 years, slotting every single team into the chart to host both the ASG and the Draft, and then nail down dates well in advance for these major league events.

Locations for the All-Star Game and the NHL Draft since 1980:

1981Los AngelesMontréal
1983New York (Nassau)Montréal
1984New JerseyMontréal (21st consecutive year)
1987canceled in favor of Rendez-Vous '87Detroit
1988St. LouisMontréal
1989EdmontonMinnesota (Bloomington)
1994New York (MSG)Hartford
1995ASG canceled due to partial season lockoutEdmonton
1996BostonSt. Louis
1997San JosePittsburgh
1999Tampa BayBoston
2002Los AngelesToronto
2004Minnesota Raleigh
2005ASG canceled due to lockoutOttawa
2006no ASG game due to OlympicsVancouver
2010no ASG game due to OlympicsLos Angeles
2011CarolinaMinnesota (St. Paul)

The All-Star Game and the Draft are both huge marketing tools for the NHL. The league needs to not only make sure that every team in the league gets to host these prestigious events, but that they are scheduled in such a manner that there can be exposure for both conferences in the NHL every single year. There are many very strong hockey markets in the West, but they don't get the same publicity within the hockey media that the Eastern teams do. There are several markets that could enjoy the boost in publicity that hosting an ASG or the Draft would bring.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Chicago Express is on track for winning season

The Express celebrates one of their first goals of the season on home ice 10/22/11

The ECHL's newest team, the Chicago Express (Blue Jackets affiliate), is off to an impressive start (6-3-0-0) -- not bad for a team that just started practicing together about a month ago. They are coming off Wednesday night's 7-4 win vs. the Toledo Walleye (Blackhawks/Red Wings affiliate) and will be playing at home this Friday night against the Cincinnati Cyclones (Predators/Panthers affiliate), whom they are currently 2-0-0-0 against.

For those who haven't yet experienced an Express game, the team plays in the northwestern Chicago suburb of Hoffman Estates. The Sears Centre Arena is one of the newest buildings in the ECHL, having opened in 2006 as a multi-use facility, and the team is currently only selling the lower bowl tickets. As a result, the local fans are enjoying a top-of-the-line home game experience.

Inaugural home game - pregame ceremony 10/22/11

The inaugural home game was a lot of fun for fans: the building was full; the Express won 4-2 against the Kalamazoo Wings (Canucks/Devils affiliate). As part of the Opening Night festivities, the team donned tuxedo-design warmup jerseys prior to the game. (As we've discussed here at HockeyBroad many times before, fun special-edition jerseys are an integral part of the ECHL hockey experience.)

If you missed that game, here is video of the opening ceremonies including player introductions and the anthem:

As is typical with ECHL teams, the Express play the bulk of their games on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, so combined with lower ticket prices, this makes ECHL hockey very appealing. The Express also offer Friday night $1 beer/$1 hot dog specials, which means with ticket prices starting at just $9, it's cheaper to go see a hockey game than a movie. For Sunday home games, bring your skates, as the team hosts a free, post-game public skate time.

This Friday night, in addition to the usual Friday special, the team will be celebrating Veterans' Day with $11.11 pricing for all club/side seating purchased at least 24 hrs prior to the game.

It doesn't matter where your NHL affections lie, either - as is typical at ECHL games across the league, fans represent a wide variety of teams, be it NHL, AHL, international or other in their choice of jerseys at the games. However, fan response to the Express has been terrific, and there are plenty of fans already sporting Express jerseys and T-shirts in the audience.

Check out the Express - you'll have a lot of fun at the games.


ECHL alignmentECHL North division / Eastern conference
Current team record6-3-0-0 (2nd in North division)
NHL affiliationColumbus Blue Jackets (2-11-1)
AHL affiliationSpringfield Falcons (6-6-0-0)
Broadcast infoCan watch online, or via radio/audio through the team website

Sears Centre Arena
5333 Prairie Stone Parkway, Hoffman Estates, IL

Parking fee for hockey games: $10
Seating capacity for hockey: 9,400
Food services at SCA provided by Levy Food Service
Ticket pricesStart at $7 for kids/seniors; $9 adult; up to $26 on the glass
Season tickets start at $5/game

Special club/side ticket pricing for 11/11 game - seats $11.11 if purchased at least 24 hrs in advance

Box office (888) 732-7784 or (224) 220-1333
Sunday special eventsAfter Sunday matinee games, fans are invited to skate with the team on the SCA ice (limited skate rentals available; fans are encouraged to bring their own)
Friday home games$1 beers & $1 hot dogs