Out of the four major team sports in North America, the NHL has the biggest challenge in finding ways to continue to engage a casual sports fan. While they have done yeoman's work in the digital space, taken over New Year's Day, and have perhaps the most exciting in-arena experience, it is still a challenge to find ways for a larger audience to tune in and engage away from the game. Last year the league had the Olympics as a secondary platform to build momentum heading towards the playoffs, and the quality of play delivered. This year and next, the challenge was to find a way to use the All-Star game to bridge that gap and expose their stars to a group of fans that may not otherwise know about the sport.
The solution for this year was to make the All-Star game a fantasy…as in draft. Rather than have the players play for teams by conference, country or geographic region, the NHL came up with the idea for the captains to hold a draft on Friday and go back and forth selecting players for each team for Sunday's game. The resul. was a throwback to what many casual fans of any sport could relate to, a pickup game with an All-Star slant. Making the opportunity work even better was the response from the players participating in the draft…total buy-in and fun support for the televised event on Friday. Not only did the captains selection create some much-needed buzz around a staid All-Star concept (which is really true in most sports these days), it showcased again the great personalities that hockey has, especially amongst its young players who sometimes don’t get the mass market airtime of other sports. The selection show also grabbed additional sponsor exposure and yet another strong digital play for a league which has really embraced all the positive areas of social media. In short, the NHL was again able to create “something’ out of nothing and make All-Star a bit more fun and relevant to people who may not have cared much. They also got the support of a very dedicated TV partner in Versus to push the entire weekend and find a host of up close and personal moments to expose the sports’ athleticism and personality, even with its biggest star (Sidney Crosby) sidelined with a concussion.
Will all this make more people watch Sunday's gam.? Maybe. What the event on Friday did was create another reason to have hockey in a casual discussion and build brand at a time when many casual eyes are still gearing up for Super Bowl or starting to transition to more interest in hoops in North America, both college and pro. The unique All-Star play provided yet another bridge for hockey relevance for a sport which works hard at not just keeping its solid fan base interested but also finds way to engage the casual follower as well. Another great example of a simple idea that most fans can relate to, taken to a new level by the NHL.