By Barry Janoff
October 5, 2015: The NHL has had a busy off-season since the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in June.
In August, NHL signed a a six-year digital media rights partnership with Major League Baseball Advanced Media, the technical arm of MLB, that is expected to enhance the user experience across the NHL's digital platforms, including GameCenter Live, NHL Center Ice, NHL Network and NHL.com. The deal also provides for an equity share for the NHL in a new tech company to be launched by MLBAM.
In September, the league unveiled a seven-year pact making adidas the official outfitter of on-ice uniforms and official supplier of licensed apparel and head wear, replacing its own Reebok division beginning with the 2017-18 season.
Also in September, the NHL and NHL Players' Assn. unveiled the schedule for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Sept. 17 - Oct. 1 in Air Canada Centre, Toronto, to include eight teams and players from around the world vying in a tournament, to be held every four years, similar to the FIFA World Cup.
Sponsorship spending on the NHL and the league’s 30 clubs hit a record total $447 million last season. That figure is up $60 million (9.2%) from the previous year and nearly $100 million more than the $356 million total in 2011, according to the IEG Sponsorship Report from marketing, research and consulting firm IEG, Chicago.
New league sponsors this past season included Constellation, DraftKings, GoPro, Kellogg’s, Samsung, SAP and Procter & Gamble (in Canada, for brands including Crest and Oral-B).
League partners Discover and Bridgestone both recently extended their deals with the NHL.
With the NHL dropping the puck on the 2015-16 season this week (Oct. 7), NYSportsJournalism spoke with NHL COO John Collins, who joined the NHL in 2006 and was named COO in August 2008, about challenges facing the league, building the NHL as a year-round destination, the World Cup and Olympics and the on-going quest to reach more fans and attract more partners via in-arena, TV, marketing and digital platforms.
NYSportsJournalism.com: How important has it been for the NHL to keep itself top-of-mind year-round with fans, marketers and the media?
John Collins: It is an important strategy and one that has continued to improve. When I got to the NHL (in 2006), the goal was to build national scale. At that time, the sport was very well developed on a regional basis, with 95% of our revenue was coming from the clubs from local revenue streams. But we saw a tremendous opportunity to grow our national revenue component. And the way to do it was to build scale. Get hockey fans to care about the sport on a league level as much as they cared about their favorite team. That led to the introduction of the events that have heightened the profile of the sport, with more key moments. Building our digital strategy to make highlights and content more accessible. That made us more appealing to marketers, so we got more deals and a bigger share of marketing and advertising dollars.
NYSJ: The NFL has built its off-season into an important time with the Scouting Combine, the draft and other key events. Can the NHL build on that same type of strategy?
JC: We realize how important that is. We are building the NHL Draft Lottery in April and the Draft in June and the NHL Awards in June. The NHL Face-Off allows us to add even more excitement to the season opening day. The Winter Classic, Stadium Series and All-Star Games are vital to us every season. We are making Hockey Day in America and the Thanksgiving Day Showdown key events on our calendar. These games are important for us on a national stage and they are important in the local markets. That's why we do it and put so much time and energy into doing it. And why we are doing the same with our events during the off-season.
NYSJ: Is that strategy also key to new media and broadcast deals?
JC: Yes. Building our league on a national level, in turn, began to make national broadcast rights more attractive. NBC, which had been a great partner but a different type of partner than they are now, came in (in 2011 with a deal valued at $2 billion by industry analysts that runs through 2020-21) and took the rights exclusively in the U.S., which helped to elevate the league. We made sure every Stanley Cup game was nationally televised, which never happened before. The sport was well-developed in Canada, but the strategy to build nationally made us even more attractive, which led to the $5.2 billion 12-year deal with Rogers Communications (in 2013), the largest deal in our history. So the momentum is building and we are much more relevant year-round.
NYSJ: How strategic is global growth at this point?
JC: We know that we still have opportunities to grow in the U.S., in Canada, and clearly internationally. Some of the deals we have been doing are starting to support and feed our global brand and global ambition that we have. It was important to be able to share content and use technology at the highest level. The World Cup of Hockey and everything that will follow are all part of that strategy to grow the sport in North American and internationally. We are looking at some other events, a version of golf's Ryder Cup, for example, (tentatively scheduled for mid 2017-18) which would be two teams comprised of the 50 best players in the world. That is an exciting concept. Every time we talk about it, whether it's with a marketing partner or a federation, they say, Yeah, we want to be part of it. So we're talking about having that find it's way into our global calendar of events.
NYSJ: Do you see the World Cup of Hockey becoming a jewel event on the level of the Winter Classic, Stadium Series and All-Star Game?
JC: The World Cup will be held every four years, and we have to commit to that and build it on a regular basis. That has been one of the issues. We have to own it and build it. We have spoken with the NHL Players' Assn. about doing it every four years. We have to decide whether we will do it in a cycle with the Olympics or without the Olympics. But the World Cup will have no affect on our Olympic Games decision.
NYSJ: How close is the decision on whether players will be in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea?
JC: That is still undecided. We will start discussions involving (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman, (NHL Players Assn. executive director) Donald Fehr, the IOC, NBC and all the other partners. But there's no timetable at this point.
NYSJ: Are you looking to create a type of fan festival around the World Cup the way the NHL has been doing with the Winter Classic?
JC: We push ourselves to do and try to do a five-year-out event calendar. But there is a little bit of science and a little bit of magic in the match-ups. How the teams are performing. How the storylines are playing out. Our pledge to our marketing partners is that we will try to get things set 14-16 months out because we know they need to start planning. If we can get farther out it would be even more advantageous.
NYSJ: Are you finding that more players are featured in national marketing campaigns and getting national exposure? (Editor's Note: The players with the Top Selling Jerseys, per most recent figures from Shop.NHL.com: Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Henrik Lundqvist, Alexander Ovechkin, Rick Nash, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk.)
JC: Definitely in the U.S., with NBC's coverage of the sport, there are more companies doing hockey-specific advertising. We obviously have that a lot in Canada. But we are seeing more exposure for players outside of the hockey game itself, which you see a lot with the NFL. People are getting more opportunities to see players off the ice. To find out who they are. it's part of our maturation process.
NYSJ: Where do you see the NHL's digital platform going now that you've signed a deal with MLBAM?
JC: There is a lot of opportunity there. We take pride in the fact that we are aggressive in building digital, social media strategies to connect with fans, having our technology cutting-edge. There is a lot of white space and we want to be aggressive in going after it. We are always prioritizing in what we go after. Part of the BAM decision was in having the best technology we possibly could and to be on as many platforms as we can. Especially as our ambition grows internationally. We want to reach the Russian fans in Russia. The Swedish fans in Sweden. And of course more fans in the U.S. and Canada. It's also a question of resources.
NYSJ: What motivated the NHL to do the MLBAM deal?
JC: The honest answer is that that we were not going to be able to make the type of capital to make the investments in technology and infrastructures to keep pace with what's going on in the industry. We are not a media company. We are a league. So we did a partnership deal with a company that is motivated in continuing to invest, not just in MLB or for HBO and ESPN and the other people that they service. Because of their scale, MLBAM is going to allow us to be in front of the curve on the production and technology fronts, on a lot of these opportunities as it relates to hockey.
NYSJ: How are you looking at the move from Reebok to adidas?
JC: Commissioner Bettman called it seamless, and it is. It is more of a logo change and an evolution than a revolution. But adidas is more of a league-performance brand than Reebok. Reebok aspired to that but were never as consistent in their execution. And adidas, strong in Europe and places internationally, gives us significantly more clout than we had. Adidas is the exclusive outfitter for authentic and replica jerseys for the eight-team World Cup of Hockey tournament. So now we have 5,000 stores in Europe where we can put NHL or World Cup of Hockey property. That's important. We have a lot of great Russian players, for instance, who the fans in Russia want to better connect with. Not just by watching the games but by buying the merchandise.
NYSJ: How urgent is it for the NHL to build on and expand marketing categories in the U.S and Canada?
JC: Not an urgency, but we have laid out an aggressive plan with the owners. We always look for the right partners and the right opportunities. The World Cup of Hockey will bring many opportunities and new potential for partners and partnerships.
NYSJ: What do you see for the immediate and long-term future for the NHL?
JC: We've been growing at a 19% average annual revenue growth over the last eight years. And we presented to the owners back in June a three-year plan that we are going to accelerate that to 20% annually. So that's pretty good growth off of what is already a growing pace on an annual basis. By the end of the three years we plan to be close to $1 billion in annual revenue, which would be up from $200 million when I started. We are excited about this season with our jewel events, the Winter So it's good growth with our fans, media partners, marketing partners, and the platforms we use to reach, connect and interact with fans.
• NHL North American corporate marketing partners include Advil, Bridgestone, Coors Light, EA Sports, Enterprise, Gatorade, Honda, Panini, PepsiCo and Reebok.
• NHL U.S. Partners include AMP Energy, Discover, Geico and McDonald's.
• NHL Partners in Canada include Canadian Tire, Diageo, Hershey's, L'Oreal Men, Mondelez, P&G, ScotiaBank, Tim Hortons, Rogers and Visa.
• Key dates this season: NHL Faceoff, Oct. 7 (in Calgary); Discover Thanksgiving Day Showdown Nov. 27; Bridgestone Winter Classic, Jan. 1, 2016 (Gillette Stadium: Montreal Canadiens vs. host Boston Bruins); All-Star Weekend Jan. 30-31 (Bridgestone Arena, Nashville); Hockey Day In America Feb. 21. Coors Light Stadium Series Feb. 21 (TCF Bank Stadium: Chicago Blackhawks vs. host Minnesota Wild) and Feb. 27 (Coors Field: Detroit Red Wings vs. host Colorado Avalanche).