By Barry Janoff
November 10, 2014: Despite four lockouts since 1991 — the most recent in 2012-13 which shorted the season to 48 games — and coming precariously close to losing its status as one of the four major pro sports in North America, the NHL said it is strong, getting stronger and experiencing growth among fans, media and marketers equal to or better than any time in its history.
"In 2006, 95% of the NHL's $2.2 billion revenue was generated by the clubs. Now, 25% of the league's $4 billion revenue is generated by the NHL," said John Collins, COO for the NHL.
"Commissioner Gary Bettman always had a vision for what hockey should be: improve the quality of the players and the game, and grow the business," said Collins, speaking late last week at the Sports Media & Technology conference presented by NeuLion and Sports Business Journal in New York Understand the brand and the relationship between the brands and fans."
Collins, who has been with the NHL since 2006, has been involved in team and league marketing, sales for more than 20 years. From 2004-06 he was president and CEO of the NFL's Cleveland Browns; and from 1989-2004 had several executive positions with NFL Films and the NFL, most recently as the league's svp-marketing and sales.
He has seen the challenges in trying to grow a league and the rewards that come with it.
"The strategy for the NHL is to build the pillars," said Collins. "Hockey fans are as passionate about the sport as baseball fans and football fans are about their sports. But they didn't show up at big games. They don't act like hockey fans in big moments. If their team was not in the Stanley Cup, they weren't there."
A lot has changed for the NHL over the past few seasons, even with the most recent lockout, which saw the season shortened to January-April 2013 and dive right into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In April 2011, the NHL signed a ten-year deal valued at $2 billion by industry analysts making NBC Sports Group the exclusive U.S. broadcast home for the league. In November 2013, the league signed a 12-year pact valued at $4.9 billion with Rogers Communications giving them the Canadian national rights to NHL games.
The league has also drawn significant attention from its outdoor games and global attention by participating in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and the 2014 Games in Sochi, but not without its downside.
"We have a highly valued demographic — young, tech-savvy, strong household income — that marketers wanted to each, but they didn't know how to reach them," said Collins. "And we didn't make it easy. We had to build 24/7 access and we had to do it ourselves because traditional media wouldn't do it for us, namely ESPN.
"A lot of people are now looking at hockey in a different way or for the first time. The deal with NBC has been tremendous. Rogers Communications was an historic deal. We have great sponsors that are willing to activate and support the league."
Although some decried the league's staging of six outdoor games last season as overkill, Collins saw the number as an advantage. Back in 2006 Collins and Jon Miller, evp for NBC Sports, were the driving forces behind the Winter Classic, with the first being held on Jan. 1, 2008.
"Outdoor games have become a great way for us to reach people who might not otherwise see hockey," he said. "If I could, I'd have 1,230 outdoor games! (Laughs.) We had six last season. That wasn't too many. It was a special year. It was our first full-season back (from the lockout). It was a year of the Winter Olympics and we wanted to do everything we could going into and coming out of the Olympics to take advantage of that during our first year with NBC. We book-ended the Olympics with outdoor games, which NBC promoted. With Super Bowl XLVIII in New York, we had two outdoor games in Yankee Stadium."
According to Collins, "Outdoor games are a big revenue builder. They should be or we are not doing it right. But that's not the only reason we do them. These are community game changers. Building the game within the local communities, building youth hockey."
The NHL this season is back to two outdoor games: The Bridgestone Winter Classic in Washington DC with the Capitals hosting the Chicago Blackhawks (Jan. 1 on NBC) in Nationals Park; and the Coors Light Stadium Series in Levi's Stadium (home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers) with the San Jose Sharks hosting the defending NHL Stanley Cup champion) Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 21.
"We have two this season and we will continue to evaluate what is the right number," said Collins.
On the hot topic of sending players to the Olympics, Collins said the the league and the NHL Players Assn. have been assessing the pros and cons. The NHL has been sending players since 1998 (Japan), most recently this year (Sochi). The 2010 Games in Vancouver saw a major jump in interest in the NHL when Canada defeated the U.S. for the gold, 3-2, on Sidney Crosby's overtime goal and both squads fill with NHL players.
The 2018 Winter Olympics will be played in South Korea, and the NHL and NHLPA have not yet to decide whether its players would participate.
"We've been to five Olympics. I've seen two first-hand," said Colins. "As a marketer, it's not hard to look at the Olympics as a big opportunity. However, I'm not seeing all of the positives for us. It's hard to stop your season and your players in mid-season. It's hard not to get full value from your league
"One of the elements we look at is how do we grow the game in the Olympic host areas, and we have not always seen that. Commissioner Bettman has always seen the potential but he wants full value," said Collins. "How do you justify shutting down in mid-season and going dark at time when there is no college football, no baseball to distract fans? Players support representing their nations and we support what the Olympic Games represent but we have to look at it from (all aspects)."
Like the NBA, the NHL is getting closer to ads on jerseys. According to Collins, sponsor patch ads on jerseys are "coming and happening." The league already has gone that route with "jersey branding by manufacturers is already a form of jersey sponsorship.," said Collins.
"We also are looking to make dasher boards more dynamic. The game doesn't stop long enough for commercials but like MLB we can put ads in view of TV during the action."
"As a marketer, it's not hard to look at the Olympics as a big opportunity. However, I'm not seeing all of the positives for us."
According to Collins, the NHL is also looking to build the World Cup of Hockey which was last played in 2004 and will next be played in September 2016 prior to the start of the NHL season. The tournament is akin to the FIFA World Cup, with nations sending top squads to compete.
It's not a solution for the Olympics 9situation), more to run parallel or maybe as a replacement," said Collins. "We are looking at how we could use the Olympics to boost the World Cup. We will figure it out so that every two years there will be an Olympics and the World Cup. The big difference is that we own the World Cup (with NBC as media partner)."
The current NHL campaign runs through mid-April with the Stanley Cup Playoffs scheduled to begin April 15 run through mid-June." Before then, the NHL with have two high-profile outdoor games as well as All-Star Weekend from Jan. 23-25 in Columbus, Ohio.
Looking ahead to this season and beyond, Collins was optimistic about the state of the NHL. "The ultimate goal," he said, "is to grow the sport of hockey from the youth level on up."
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