By Barry Janoff
January 21, 2013: It was just a coincidence, but an unfortunate one, none the less, that the same week in which Lance Armstrong was apologizing for his decade-plus use of banned drugs and then misleading friends, fans and marketers about it, the NHL was apologizing to friends, fans and marketers about the lockout.
Before the first pucks dropped on Jan. 19, and the league was preparing to play what was left of the 2012-13 season — 48 games instead of 82, no Winter Classic and no All-Star Game — the NHL took out a full page ad in newspapers nationwide that addressed the situation.
"Dear Fans," it began, "As your teams prepare for the opening face-off of the 2012-13 season, we thank you for your patience and we apologize to you for the time we've missed. From today forward, we will do everything we can to make this season worth the wait. We are committed to earning back your trust and support the same way it's hearted on the ice: with hard work and unwavering dedication. . . Like you, we've missed NHL hockey . . . The National Hockey League."
Fans apparently took the message — which ran in about 40 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada — to heart. Arenas hosting season openers over the weekend were virtually sold out. And NBC said that its regional telecasts from Saturday registered a 2.0 overnight rating, which the network indicated was its highest-rated NHL regular-season game since the 2012 Bridgestone Winter Classic. (2.4) and the highest overnight mark for any regular-season game other than a Winter Classic in 11 years.
That strong start bodes well for the NHL, especially considering that less than a month ago it appeared as if the entire season might have to be scrapped. But in the light of the league's second major lockout since 2004-05, when a a CBA-related lockout led league executives to cancel the season, many significant questions still remain.
Will anyone other than hard-core NHL fans pay attention? How will marketing and media partners help the league to woo casual and non-hockey fans into the mix? And can the NHL ever sell itself as a top-level pro league considering the two most-recent lockouts, plus another in 1994-95 that cut the season to 48 games and a strike in 1991-92 that cost the NHL 30 games?
“It is beyond comprehension to me that the NHL has once again allowed a work stoppage to impact the start of its season," said Jeff Pomeroy, a 20-year marketing and communications veteran, including 12 years with Turner Sports, who is now president of JDP Communications, Atlanta. "Hockey’s devoted fan base will return as always but the loss of some of hockey’s signature events, as well as the momentum and media muscle NBC Sports would’ve put behind them, may have a more long-term impact on their growth.”
League executives fully understand that the situation must be resolved, not just for this season but long-term as well. "We'll be talking to the fans, most importantly," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the media following the resolution of the lockout. "But at this point in time, we still have some work to do."
NHL marketing partners, for the most part, appear ready, willing and able to support the league's return to action.
"It's going to be very difficult to attract the non-hockey fan but, then again, its always difficult to attract the non-hockey fan."
"You will see Discover advertising during the season," said Matthew Towson, senior manager-media relations for Discover Financial Services. "In terms of activation plans, we are still discussing potential opportunities during the shortened season."
The fact that the Winter Classic and HBO's behind-the-scene's companion 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic series, as well as the All-Star Game, were cancelled cost NHL marketing partners significant activation time needed to reach fans. it also cost the league prime opportunities to connect with casual and non-hockey consumers who have, in recent years, responded to these jewel events.
"24/7 and the Winter Classic have been remarkable in exposing the sport to people who otherwise wouldn't be interested," said Michael McCarthy, co-chairman of production company Manhattan Place Entertainment, NY, who previously was CEO for the NHL's St. Louis Blues and a 23-year veteran, including president, for the Madison Square Garden Networks Group. "These events, and the All-Star Game, have been the friendly fire victims of the lockout. Not just in losing those non-core group of fans, but there were a lot of big time sponsors that were going to be involved."
Among those that planned to support the Winter Classic and/or All-Star Game were Discover, Bridgestone, Reebok, McDonald's, Geico, Honda, Verizon, Cicso, Coors Light, EA Sports, Enterprise, Gatorade, Lay's Pepsi Max, Molson Canadian, Panini, Westin and SiriusXM.
"It's going to be very difficult to attract the non-hockey fan but, then again, its always difficult to attract the non-hockey fan," said Robert Tuchman, president of experiential sports and celebrity travel-services firm Goviva, NY, who has more than 15 years of executive experience with sports marketing and sponsorship firms. His book, 100 Sporting Events You Must See Live (Benbella Books, 2009), has the Stanley Cup as No. 12 on the list. "Core fans will be back. But the NHL needs to reboot its efforts to attract casual and non-hockey fans as the league did after the 2004-05 lockout. However, that could be much harder without the Winter Classic and All-Star Games this season."
According to Tuchman, marketing partners should take a lead role in these efforts.
"One thing is they can get out and apologize to the fans for the work stoppage. Let the fans know that they appreciated them waiting while the league figured out its situation," said Tuchman. "I would play it as 'We were all waiting, and now its time to play,' meaning their brands as well.”
EA Sports was resolute in its support of the league during the lockout, running a faux season via its NHL 13 video game and related social media destinations. When the lockout was resolved, EA Sports was the first NHL partner to hit the airwaves with a commercial, "Hockey Is Back: Start Your Season."
"Marketing is very important. and sponsors should take advantage of this unusual situation," said Michael McCarthy, co-chairman of production company Manhattan Place Entertainment, NY, former CEO for the NHL's St. Louis Blues and a 23-year veteran, including president, for the Madison Square Garden Networks Group. "There is an opportunity to think out of the box, to address the fact that the season has started so late and that everybody is paying attention to that."
McCarthy said that the NHL and its marketing partners can turn a negative into a positive by using the shortened season to their advantage.
"Where as January is arguably a lull in the season, this time it is the beginning of the season," said McCarthy. "A short season means that each game now becomes that much more important in trying to reach the playoffs. The lockout certainly didn't help the image of the league. But if handled correctly it sparks creativity and messaging: 'We're back,' 'We're reconnecting' and 'Did you miss us?' There is an opportunity here and sponsors are going to play a big role."
"The lockout certainly didn't help the image of the league. But if handled correctly it can turn a negative into a positive and spark creativity and messaging."
"Unfortunately for the true NHL fan, the season is quite shorter, but for the general fan, this helps as games will have playoff relevance sooner than later," concurred David Schwab, managing director for First Call, the sports and celebrity acquisition and activation division of global marketing firm Octagon.
Schwab also targeted vital areas in which the league, teams and marketers could reclaim lost fans.
"Ticket giveaways, player interaction and support from their marketing partners will help," said Schwab.
"The Winter Classic and HBO's 24/7 are two franchises that should be exploited," said McCarthy. "User-friendly content like that are a priority. There were masterfully well-executed and made the NHL and the sport of hockey more attractive to a broader reach of people. It was no longer just a club of hockey guys who seemed almost proud that there was [small] exclusive group of true supporters."
NHL media partners will play a big part in getting the game back on solid ice with true and casual fans alike.
In all, NBC Sports Group will broadcast 70 NHL regular-season games across NBC and NBC Sports Network this season. NHL studio programming throughout the 2013 season will originate from the NBC Sports Group’s new, state-of-the-art International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn. The first studio programming aired on Jan. 19, prior to two regional games.
On Feb. 17, the third annual Hockey Day in America will feature more than nine hours of coverage, including three games and six teams across both NBC and NBC Sports Network. In addition, NBC said that coverage would include "compelling features that tell the story of America’s passion for hockey."
SiriusXM's subscribers had access to live play-by-play of all 13 opening day games as part of its regular season and Stanley Cup playoff schedule. SiriusXM NHL Network Radio is available on satellite radio, the SiriusXM Internet Radio app and online as SiriusXM.com/NHL.
Looking ahead to 2013-14, the NHL said it would reschedule events from the canceled 2013 Winter Classic for the same venues for late 2013 and Jan. 1, 2014, at the University of Michigan Stadium, with the Detroit Red Wings hosting the Toronto Maple Leafs.
However, there will be no All-Star Game in 2014 due to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Negotiations are currently underway to have NHL players participate in the Games, as they did during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
How will it all fall out for the NHL? The lockout certainly damaged the league's image. But, as analysts stress, there are some positives versus the last time the NHL had to shut down.
"NBC is a strong partner, the shorter season means that every game counts because you're looking at the Stanley Cup playoffs literally starting in three months and the fact that social media is such a powerful tool all will work in the league's favor," said McCarthy. "Where YouTube and Facebook were just beginning after the last lockout and Twitter didn't exist, the NHL now knows that these are valuable ways in which to connect with fans almost on a one-to-one basis, get fans involved with teams and have them interact with players. And make the reconnection that much easier. "
Even with the lockout, the NHL's social media impact has remained impressive. The league has more than 1.6 followers on Twitter, more than 2.6 million "likes" on Facebook and has more than 191,000 subscribers to its YouTube destination.
Plus, as Schwab added, "After the Super Bowl, space in the newspapers and on TV will not be dominated by the NFL, which will allow for some extra ink [for the NHL]."
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