The National Hockey League was officially founded in 1917, but it took a lockout in 2004-05 for the league to be reborn into the new age marketing, social networking and high-tech communications. At the mid-way point of the 2010-11 season during All-Star Weekend, the NHL is arguably in a stronger brand and marketing position than ever. However, as evp-marketing Brian Jennings and David Lehanski, NHL group vp-sponsorship sales, offer, there are still plenty of challenges left to overcome.
By Barry Janoff, Executive Editor
(Posted Jan. 29, 2010)
With two-thirds of their crown jewel events successfully enacted, the NHL appears to be skating as smoothly as players on ice just cleaned by a Zamboni. But even Zamboni machines need proper maintenance to avoid getting clogged with ice and debris.
Among other highlights at the mid-way point of the 2010-11 season, the NHL has achieved a 32% increase in sponsorship and marketing revenue; signed Discover Financial Services as the league's official credit card in the U.S. and the first presenting sponsor of the All-Star Game in more than a decade; unveiled a broad-based partnership renewal with Cisco across multiple NHL platforms and events involving consumer electronics and technology infrastructure; and partnered with legendary comic book creator Stan Lee on The Guardian Project, a new multi-media and marketing franchise that will morph the identities of 30 NHL players into superheroes.
In addition, the NHL has added, renewed and/or expanded deals with such corporate partners such as McDonald’s, Geico, Starwood Hotels, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Honda, Bridgestone, Verizon, LG Electronics, Tim Hortons and Hershey’s Canada.
According to Jennifer Murillo, Discover's director of advertising, a significant catalyst in the deal was the success of media buys during NHL broadcasts on NBC and Versus. "We know our customers love hockey," said Murillo. "We were looking for ways to connect with our customers around one of their core passions. We saw the NHL as a great way to get out the message about Discover and all the ways it pays to Discover."
NBC’s broadcast of the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic was the most-viewed NHL regular season game in 36 years with an average of 4.5 million watching during the evening of Jan. 1 when the Washington Capitals played the host Pittsburgh Penguins at Heinz Field. That figure was up 22% over the 2010 game played at Fenway Park (3.7 million).
More signs of growth include average monthly unique visitors to NHL.com plus all 30 NHL team Web sites have increased to a record 21.2 million; gross sales on Shop.NHL.com up 12%; subscriptions to NHL GameCenter Live (broadband) up 24% over last year; and advertising on NHL.com and NHL Network has increased by 55%, all according to the league.
This comes at a time when the league is experiencing a relatively smooth labor situation, especially in comparison to the uncertainty of the CBA deals that mush be renewed in both the NFL and NBA. Which all bodes well for media deals in the U.S. that are expiring with NBC and Versus (which will be siblings under the new Comcast-NBC Universal merger), with ESPN making noise that it could possibly make a play to return as a league broadcast partner and up the overall ante.
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Brian Jennings, NHL evp-marketing, and David Lehanski, the league's group vp-sponsorship sales, regarding the All-Star Game (Jan. 30), Winter Classic (Jan. 1) and Heritage Classic (Feb. 20) outdoor games, National Hockey Day In America (Feb. 20) and other marketing and media efforts.
NYSportsJournalism: Is the NHL safely past the lockout of 2004-05, where people are not waiting to see if the league can return but asking how far it can go?
Brian Jennings: Most certainly. We clearly felt, and what probably brings us the highest level of satisfaction, is that years ago, when we put the strategy in place to transform our business and to build our business on big-scale events, building our digital arsenal and doing all the things we knew could drive further interest and really build a national advertising marketplace. The work that the organization and its players have done has put us an advantageous position in a year when the [NHL] media landscape is going to be reset in the U.S. We have very ambitious goals ahead of us regarding where we are going. So we definitely feel that our position is, "How high is high?" That's a demand that our [team] owners, who are the ultimate stakeholders, place on us every day.
David Lehanski: There were criticisms coming out of the lockout from partners that there weren't enough opportunities for them to activate. So we looked for and are now able to give them more events to utilize the rights for which they are paying for and investing in, and to build bridges between them and the fans. It is a growth sign for us that more partners are jumping on board with the events that we are creating year-round.
"There were criticisms from partners that there weren't enough opportunities for them to activate. So we looked for and are now able to give them more events."
NYSJ: How successful do you feel the NHL has been regarding not only building interest among core fans, but also attracting and keeping casual and non-hockey fans?
BJ: We know that we have a very avid fan base. And we are very grateful for that. The research we have across many different measures indicates that. Research also indicates that the core fan base is growing, which is coming from the casual and non-hockey fan demographics. Even with that, we felt that what was important to us was to demonstrate to the marketplace — and what advertisers were looking for — was the ability for us to mobilize those fans and to have them behave in a transactional fashion so that marketing partners and potential partners could leverage their association with us. The event strategy has worked very well toward that, using the Winter Classic, the All-Star Game, the Stanley Cup and, this year, the Heritage Classic with Tim Hortons as presenting sponsor. Also, the direct-to-consumer approach that we have employed has also allowed us to demonstrate that. We are quite pleased with the results, but we are also looking to do more.
DL: The social media aspect of the league fits very well with our overall fan demographic: They are young, affluent and incredibly tech savvy. And I would say they are more passionate about hockey than any fans are about their favorite sports. So when we work with our partners and speak to potential new partners, we can show them the multitude of ways we connect with fans and the incredible response we get from fans via multiple mediums.
NYSJ: There was no All-Star Game in 2010 because of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, so was there a challenge to ramp-up the All-Star Game strategy after a two-year hiatus?
DL: We are in a great position as far as the All-Star Game, which can be attributed to a couple of major factors. The league has experienced overall growth over the past few years and there is more interest in the NHL from a broader group of marketers and a broader fan demographic. There also are a lot more young stars who have been able to attract interest.
BJ: Commissioner Gary Bettman and Brendan Shanahan [vp-hockey and business development] really have been able to execute plans for the 2011 All-Star Game and All-Star Weekend quite smoothly. Even without the All-Star Game in 2010, hockey was top-of-mind because of the Olympics. The Winter Classic has really captured the imagination of our fans and marketing partners. This year we have brought back the Heritage Classic. But we did have to make certain that the All-Star Game, which happens between those two world-class events, lives up to its billing.
NYSJ: Was that goal accomplished?
BJ: The Commissioner challenged the organization, and in particular hockey operations, to rethink what the All-Star Game could turn into. We have Discover as a title sponsor, and their activation has brought increased interest in the All-Star Game. More than 15 partners are in the line up for 2011. Sponsorship revenue and total number of partners have significantly increased [12% from the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal; 43% increase from 2008 All-Star Game in Atlanta]. We also added the All-Star Player Fantasy Draft Powered by Cisco, where the two team captains [Nicklas Lindstrom and Eric Staal] actually selected their squads from among all the players selected to appear in the All-Star Game.
"The Commissioner challenged the organization, and in particular hockey operations, to rethink what the All-Star Game could turn into."
NYSJ: How important is The Guardian Project with Stan Lee to the overall plans?
BJ: We introduced The Guardian Project platform not only to attract fans but also league partners, under which 30 players [one from each team] will be "transformed" into a super hero. From the beginning it led to significant interest in this property from a number of partners who were eager to see it at the All-Star Game [where all of the super heroes were officially unveiled]. And it will continue on several levels, including online, print, gaming and merchandise.
NYSJ: With three jewel events in a short time period, is it a challenge to differentiate them among fans and keep interest high among marketers?
BJ: It is a challenge. We want to maintain the brand positioning and the DNA that makes each of these events unique. We are committed as an organization and as a brand to keep each of them special in their own way and to recognize that there are unique aspects to each of the markets. And ultimately, that is what our partners are doing. But, again, I go back to the basic premise of giving our partners three unique opportunities over the course of the year to activate their brands and to leverage their associations with us. Some partners have Canadian rights, and we have a platform in Canada with the Heritage Classic to do that. Many partners look to do unique activations behind the All-Star Game that are aligned specifically to All-Star Weekend and the game itself. And the Winter Classic at the beginning of the year has activations that are timed to that window.
DL: There is a little bit of fear when you try to roll out so many new events [during the season and during All-Star Game Weekend]: Will there be over-saturation? Will the fans and partners be supportive of each of the events? But if the Winter Classic and All-Star Game are any indication, the interest is not only high, but is growing. Maybe the best way to measure is that we have more partners than ever advertising on Versus for the All-Star Game.
NYSJ: Are you seeing more of a ripple effect from these events among marketers?
BJ: The part that makes it very satisfying from our perspective is not that we work with our partners to activate locally — this year in Raleigh [for the All-Star Game], Pittsburgh [Winter Classic] and Calgary [Heritage Classic] — but a lot of our partners are now doing national marketing in and around these jewel events. That is really helping to make it bigger and broader and capturing the imagination of both avid and casual fans.
NYSJ: Would you say that the growth of the Winter Classic has not just mirrored but been a driving catalyst in building the fan base and marketing alliances?
BJ: Certainly. The first year in Buffalo , we had an amazing event but a lot of people post-event were still wondering if was something that we could maximize for fans and our partners every year. In Chicago , we showed with the venue [Wrigley Field] and with more partners coming in, that it was something that not only was it sustainable, but we had the highest TV ratings in about 34 years. So there was something being built there.
"Give Bridgestone a lot of credit because they had the vision and the foresight to say, 'We love where this is going and we want to sign on as a title partner.'"
NYSJ: Pepsi's Amp was title sponsor for the first Winter Classic, but Bridgestone signed on for the strategic spot the next year, and will continue to be there through 2015 [as well as being the official tire of the NHL]. How important was that to attracting other marketers, the media and the public to the event?
BJ: We give Bridgestone a lot of credit because they had the vision and the foresight to say, "We love where this is going and we want to sign on as a title partner." In Boston , moving to Fenway Park, Bridgestone had an expanded presence and worked with the league to show how we could use the unique aspects of the venue to embrace the community and prolong both the advance part of the event as well as the back end.
NYSJ: The Winter Classic in Pittsburgh this year again pullied in strong numbers as far as viewers on NBC. Is it too soon to tell how the NHL's marketing partners reacted to it?
BJ: In Pittsburgh, we used a lot of the same themes as in Boston, with an auxiliary rink, community involvement and a fan plaza, but more enhanced. I have to say that [Pittsburgh] was the best Winter Classic, where our partners were really able to give fans, including those who didn't have tickets to the game, an opportunity to experience the Winter Classic. Each year we have been able to add a level to it. And this year we had HBO's 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the NHL Winter Classic, which came with a built-in ad campaign and reached a lot of viewers who, as we were talking about, likely were casual or even non-hockey fans.
NYSJ: Would you say the new Discover Card ad with Phil Pritchard and the Stanley Cup, and the ESPN This is SportsCenter ad with Alex Ovechkin are good examples of how doors are opening among marketers and Madison Avenue regarding the NHL?
BJ: Definitely. And I give a lot of credit to Keith Wachtel [svp-corporate sales and marketing] and David [Lehanski], our lead sales guys. When they go out and pitch the NHL, a lot of what they are doing is showing where the league has gone, where it is uniquely positioned and where it is going. As I said, we have very ambitious goals. The value of the game and the quality of the audience is what captures the attention of partners. And we now have these platforms on the digital side as well as on the event side, that we have our own network and other assets that are at the disposal of partners where we can build very unique marketing platforms for each of our partners that can separate and differentiate them in the market.
DL: The two [ads] you mentioned are a good way to display our personality off the ice. But every partner has their own approach. Those two use humor. There are others, such as Honda, that take a little more serious approach. But the good thing is that we have a lot of creative out there and we can show the various aspects of our players and our game.
NYSJ: Sidney Crosby was not at the All-Star Game or at All-Star Weekend events due to the post-effects of his concussion. That diminished somewhat the overall aura of the event, but did it also give other players more room to shine?
BJ: Sidney is one of our major star players, as is Alex Ovechkin and several others. But the fact that the All-Star Game by its very nature features all stars, you have the top players in the world coming together. It is still something very special for the fans to celebrate. The entire All-Star Weekend is putting a spotlight not only on our league but all of the players who make the NHL a great league. It is also putting a spotlight on the city of Raleigh and [host team Carolina Hurricanes owner] Peter Karmanos and what he has done as far as being dedicated to the marketplace. Jeff Skinner [Hurricanes All-Star center] is a great example of our young stars. He's just 18 and has been able to establish himself with young fans. You always want your best players to be there. But, unfortunately, injuries are part of the game and you can't control that.
NYSJ: How would you describe the 2010-11 NHL season?
DL: We are confident that we are in a positive growth mode. We started to feel it a couple of years ago, but when you look at the numbers it certifies what we are trying to do. When we go out there and talk to partners and to potential partners, the conversation is all very positive for us for the first time in quite a while, which is very good for the league and for the sport.
BJ: We have a lot of momentum and energy behind the brand, and more people are taking notice. So we plan to take the discussion we have created behind the three jewel events and carry that into the Stanley Cup playoffs, when we will have another period of heavy marketing activation. And we will then take that into the 2011 NHL Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas [June 22] and the NHL Entry Draft, which will be held in Minnesota [June 24-25]. So we really have progressed from being a seasonal operation to a 12-month cycle that keeps us churning. And it's very rewarding when you are serving the best fans in all of sports.