There was a time not long ago when the proud and mighty NHL was on life support. But NHL evp-marketing Brian Jennings explains how the league has not only regained its marketing groove but become more relevant than ever via the Winter Classic, the 2010 Olympics, Stanley Cup playoffs and stars such as Sidney Crosby, Roberto Luongo, Mikael Samuelsson, Ryan Miller and Alexander Ovechkin.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted April 27, 2010)
In hindsight, the NHL found its future after the lost season of 2004-05 when play was shut down due to a labor dispute. The challenge was clear for league executives, headed by commissioner Gary Bettman: Work harder and be more creative than ever. What the NHL needed to do was not just reclaim its status as one of the top pro sports in North America, but to raise its level of competitiveness on the ice, redefine its future and win back the confidence and trust of fans, consumers, TV executives and marketers.
Many point to the Winter Classic on Jan. 1, 2008, as a major step in the league's road to recovery. Arriving with great potential but even greater questions, the outdoor game at Ralph Wilson Stadium pitting the Pittsburgh Penguins against the hometown Buffalo Sabres had an NHL- record crowd of 71,217 and drew on NBC the best TV ratings for an NHL game in 12 years. Of equal importance, marketing partners saw strong results from their association with the game and, in turn, the league itself.
The NHL has now established its presence on New Year's Day following the second Winter Classic, on Jan. 1, 2009 at Chicago's Wrigley Field between the Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings; and the third on Jan. 1, 2010 at Boston's Fenway Park, which featured the Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers, both with Bridgestone as title sponsor (replacing Amp Energy). The site of the 2011 Winter Classic on Jan. 1 is TBD (Washington DC, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh are among the favorites) and the league is strongly considering a second outdoor game, perhaps in February, in Canada (mirroring the NHL's original outdoor event, the Heritage Classic in 2003, played at Commonwealth Stadium between the Montreal Canadiens and hometown Edmonton Oilers.)
The one-two punch of the Winter Classic and the hockey tournament during the 2010 Winter Olympics — capped by the gold medal game between Canadian and U.S.teams fully populated by NHL players — has been part of what might be the NHL's most auspicious season ever. Some 27.6 million viewers watched the gold medal game on NBC, the most for a hockey game since 1980, per Nielsen, in which Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal in overtime for Canada and U.S. goalie Ryan Miller was named tournament MVP. The league signed seven new marketing partners this season and renewed agreements with five others, "resulting in a 20% overall increase in corporate sponsorship revenue compared to last season," according to the NHL. The league also has continued to grow at retail and via the NHL Network, NHL.com and social networking.
Although there are significant challenges ahead, including resolving the ownership situation in Phoenix, renewals with marketing partners such as Bridgestone and negotiating TV contracts — deals with NBC and Versus both expire June 2011 and ESPN is eyeing TV rights — the NHL has its sights set on continued growth. Brian Jennings, the NHL's evp-marketing, spoke with NYSportsJournalism.com about the past, present and future of the league.
NYSportsJournalism.com: Does the NHL have its swagger back and no longer feel the need to be on the defensive regarding the lockout season of 2004-05?
Brian Jennings: Any success that we have is due to the allegiance of our fans and players. I am always very humbled by that. All along the way, certainly some of the things that we've done to enhance our events, we've been very fortunate with some great young players who not only have joined the league but have made their mark. The product on the ice, which is what you have as a marketer to market, is as good as it's ever been.
NYSJ: Is there one thing that has made this possible?
BJ: It's a culmination of a lot of things that have aligned. We have been able to use the energy and the momentum from the Winter Classic and the Winter Olympics. But momentum is a funny thing. If it's working against you it can be awful and create that inertia type of feel. But when it's working for you and you can use the power, you can accomplish some incredible things. That is definitely the mode of operation we are in now.
NYSJ: Coming off the 2010 Winter Olympics and the success of the Bridgestone Winter Classic, it seems as if more people are aware of more NHL players. Is part of the challenge now to get people talking about what the players are doing via marketing and other venues off the ice?
BJ: Yes. That is 100% right. If you look at the interest, it always starts with the game. The fact is that the performance and the things players do on the ice is where it all starts. After that, you look at what are the human interest stories. We want to create that water cooler discussion where people talk about NHL players and who they are and what they've are doing not just on the ice.
NYSJ: What are the things that would create those discussions?
BJ: If you look at your fan segmentation, you have people who care about what type of music is loaded onto their iPod. You have people who share common off-ice interests with certain players. You never know what might spark it. Certainly, we looked at the Olympics as an opportunity for the world to get a chance to know some of our players [beyond the top stars]. Sidney Crosby is unbelievable and Alex Ovechkin continues to deliver. But now, for example, Ryan Miller burst onto the scene. We see it through our Web analytics looking for people searching for Ryan Miller. They want to know more about him. We have always felt that our players have broad interests, they are community-oriented, they good-looking guys, they are articulate. That speaks for itself. And in a lot of ways that is happening. It is certainly happening at the local level and now we are starting to see it more at the national level.
NYSJ: Have you been able to gauge whether you are attracting more casual and even non-hockey fans due to the Winter Classic and the Olympics?
BJ: Yes. We've definitely seen the TV ratings bump from the Winter Classic and that more casual viewers are tuning in. [This season] we have had double-digit increases during national broadcasts on NBC and Versus. The first week of the playoffs on Versus were the best numbers since 2002 [on ESPN]. And ratings on NBC were up 10% the first weekend of the playoffs [over 2009]. So we definitely have seen the TV ratings increase.
NYSJ: What have you seen as far as increased interest in the league via the Internet and other forms of new media?
BJ: People are consuming the game very differently than they have in the past and we are really measuring that. Every day at 10:15 AM, I meet in my office with my entire group and we talk about technology, unique visitors, what territories those visitors are coming from, what is the video consumption over last year, story readership, national ratings and ratings at the regional sport networks. We just unveiled a new Facebook integration at NHL.com that makes the site more interactive. We're seeing increased activation through alliances we have with YouTube, Hulu and other Web sites. So we are looking at all the different touch points that really speak to a highly-engaged fan base, especially [now] during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
NYSJ: Has the league decided where the 2011 Winter Classic will be played?
BJ: We are still in discussion, but we are definitely down the path a ways with a couple of different markets. The notion when we first embarked on the Winter Classic was to bring the game to its outdoor roots. Inherently people want to see how we presented it in a particular stadium in an iconic setting. In some ways, it's our way of tipping our cap to our fans and saying, Hey, this is really a treat not just for the two participating teams and the market that is hosting the game, but for the world to come together and celebrate the roots of the game outdoors.
NYSJ: Isn't the fact that so many cities want the game and that people are talking about it part of the strategy to get people thinking about the NHL more than they have?
BJ: That's exactly right. It's amazing how it has grown. Right after the first game in Buffalo we literally not only had [NHL teams] calling commissioner Gary Bettman about hosting the game but [representatives from] stadiums saying. "We should host a game. This is going to be unbelievable. We love it.'" Then when we were in Chicago at Wrigley Field and in Boston at Fenway Park, we created incredible opportunities for the fans to become part of it. And, yes, it becomes the water cooler talk: "I hope our team gets one." "I heard they're looking at this market." "Wouldn't it be great to take it off-site to the mountains of Colorado or Vail." It just goes from NHL markets to non-markets with "Would they ever do one overseas?"
NYSJ: Bridgestone has been title sponsor for the last two Winter Classics, but they are in discussion now to renew their NHL marketing alliance, which expires after the Stanley Cup playoffs. How does the league feel about that partnership?
BJ: Certainly we look at with a great deal of gratitude the support that Bridgestone has given us. Because as title sponsor they take on a big responsibility there, and I think they have been incredibly pleased with the exposure and the opportunity.
NYSJ: Have you heard from other companies that would want to take title sponsorship or to have a larger role with the Winter Classic?
BJ: Not only the title sponsor. Reebok has been there for us year in and year out. They do a great job not only providing a lot of the fun things that fans get to connect emotionally with the game but also being there as a partner to our media assets. What we've been working at really hard over the past two years is demonstrating value to our existing partners.
NYSJ: Are there specific marketing categories that the NHL is trying to fill or embellish?
BJ: We have a lot of things going on with our partners. We signed seven new partners this season and signed renewals with five others. We'd love to get LG Electronics, with whom we recently signed a deal for Canada, down into the U.S. We have a great financial partner north of the border in Scotiabank. We do have a couple of deals coming up soon that we are excited about. We have some renewals that are coming up. So it's always a kind of a mix. We take a great deal of pride in that most of our partners do renew. Having said that, we have a lot of categories to fill. So our sales team has been working vigorously and looking at [all] categories.
"We take a great deal of pride that most of our partners do renew. Having said that, we have a lot of categories to fill. Our sales team has been working vigorously."
NYSJ: If you look at how the NFL has expanded the marketing and fan interest around its draft and combine, and how MLB and the NBA handle their All-Star Game events, what does the NHL see as being events that can have more impact?
BJ: One of the assets we are selling in a lot of ways is these large-scale events, where we've captured the imagination not only of our fans but of the advertising marketplace. They are looking at it and saying, "Wow, this is an incredible opportunity for me to leverage the power of my brand up against the NHL's audience." We know it is a very valuable audience. So I would definitely point to the Winter Classic. I would certainly point to our execution of the NHL awards ceremony [which will take place in Las Vegas this year for the second time] as examples of us looking at events and recreating them through the lens of the eyes of our partners. We are also looking at our big event to start the 2010-11 season in Toronto for "Face Off." Making sure that everybody knows that our season has kicked off. We have games going on overseas. At the NHL Combine [May 24-29 in Toronto] and the NHL Entry Draft [June 25–26, 2010 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles] there are a lot of authentic moments. And there are a lot of brands that would love to rub up against what that represents — the future athletes who are going to come in and make their mark on the game.
NYSJ: Are there any specific activations the NHL is looking at regarding specific marketing partners?
BJ: As a sponsor or marketer, when you think about the NHL we are literally going to give you a window from late September all the way through the end of June. But we look at it that way fully knowing that our sponsor base has certain times of the year where [activation] might be more important to them. A new car launch if you are Honda and they'd love to do some test drives around a specific event. Or if you are more of a consumer products company driven by Holiday or fourth quarter sales you are back-loading that in the November-December time period. So we would look to see what the opportunities there would be. Or around the Winter Classic and into the All-Star Game. We are looking at the types of things that Pepsi, for example, could benefit from if we did the Winter Classic in a certain type of a setting. What are the things we could do with a party the night before for one of our partners like an Anheuser-Busch.
NYSJ: This year, the Winter Classic and the start of the Olympics' hockey tournament were about six weeks apart. In 2010-11, the NHL will have the Winter Classic on Jan.1 and the All-Star Game Jan. 30. Do you see that as being a month of momentum or could it be overkill?
BJ: It is a lot to have and we will have a lot of events in that time period. But the Winter Classic is a unique experience. It happens on New Year's Day. It's a holiday. Anyone who has come for the first three years can attest to getting wrapped up in the whole excitement and the environment of the community that is hosting it. Our All-Star Game, and all-star games in general, continue to find their footing. But I definitely don't think that it is too much. I think any time you look at experiential marketing, if you look at big events that drive scale, those are the ones that partners really want to take advantage of.
NYSJ: Because of the management situation in Phoenix, the NHL moved its 2011 All-Star Game and pre-events from Arizona to Raleigh hosted by the Carolina Hurricanes Jan. 29-30. How did that come about?
BJ: Commissioner Bettman said it best when he went down to Raleigh four or five years ago. He told [Hurricanes team owners] that if they got to a certain amount of season ticket holders we would award an all-star game. In large part this is not just the commissioner but the league paying back the fans of Carolina. The 'Caniacs' who have been very supportive of the team. We will put a lot of local flavor into it. What we do is tip our hat to the local market that is hosting it and let them use it as a way to give back to the fans.
NYSJ: Overall, what do you see as the league's marketing assets moving forward?
BJ: What we want to do is offer a broad enough portfolio, We want to have that precision-like execution of our events so that we are doing it in concert with our partners. One of the most rewarding things was when Bridgestone, Honda and Reebok came on, and we sat with them and planned out what would be success for them in and around big events. They laid out their objectives and we tried like mad to achieve every one of them. The area in which we are measuring ourselves in which we feel very well positioned is our digital assets. Those will continue to mature. We feel that the products and services we offer to the fans will continue to connect them [to the league and players] in the ways they want. Mobile and our relationship with Verizon, and Bell in Canada, NHL.com and the revamping of our Web site, which continues to resonate with fans. "GameCenter Live," which has video-streaming capability. "NHL Center Ice," which is our out-of-market package. We will continue to do more of the things that connect fans to the game. And we will continue to deliver a quality product. We are going to continue to over-deliver and super-serve our fans.
NYSJ: What about the NHL's biggest challenges?
BJ: Clearly, there has been a lot said, and rightly so, about the media landscape in the U.S. Over the next year we will have that decided. We have two good partners right now in NBC and Versus. So that will be a story to watch as it unfolds.
NYSJ: And not to overlook the league's core image, will the Stanley Cup go on tour again after the season?
BJ: Yes. Fans want to see the Stanley Cup; they want to touch it. They see it as an icon unto itself.
NHL Marketing Partners
Bridgestone, Gatorade, Visa, McDonald's Honda, Kraft, Bell (Canada), Anheuser-Busch, Sirius Satellite Radio, Verizon, Energizer (Canada), Geico, Hershey's (Canada), Reebok, ScoiaBank (Canada), LG Electronics (Canada), Pepsi Max, Enterprise, Labatt (Canada), Ticketmaster, Compuware, US Army, Cicso, Starwood.