If you are in the Philadelphia/New York corridor and are a lover of hockey this week was your week. With the Division leading Rangers and Flyers battling it out not once, but twice, the Devils hosting a series of “A” list opponents and all roads leading to the Bridgestone Winter Classic at Citizen’s Bank Ballpark, the time couldn’t be better. The business of hockey is as strong as it has ever been in the area.
Now none of this has occurred in a vacuum. The NHL, coming off their now-forgotten lost season due to their own labor disputes, saw opportunity in the emerging digital universe, a platform which fit well with their younger engaged fan base. While the slightly more mature audiences of the NFL, MLB and the NBA built through the traditional, the NHL branched out into online engagement full bore, found a signature event with partner NBC to build around, used a strong Vancouver Winter Olympics and the emergence of new stars to take the sport to areas of engagement and brand loyalty they had not seen in quite a while.
The result is a strong multi-tiered platform with a signature stand alone national event that brand hockey has built off of. Brand hockey is not just a TV ratings driver, those double digit audiences are not what the NHL is all about. Brand hockey is about engagement in every way possible, and using that engagement as a selling point has made the sport stronger as all eyes look to Philly for the start of 2012.
On the engagement side, the platforms that each of the three local teams have embraced have also picked up steam and support.
The Flyers continue to take a more aggressive approach in bringing their brand to new areas through Ed Snider’s long-standing commitment to youth hockey in and around Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. The team recently launched another series of initiatives to bring the sport and its positive messages to more of an inner city audience, taking advantage of the opportunity they have with the very personable Wayne Simmonds (who is also one of the NHL’s black athletes) to engage young people with an interest in the sport.
The team parlayed that relationship in a big way during the latter half of 2011, opening three new public ice rinks outfitted not just for hockey but with academic facilities as well, to better serve area youth. The opening was funded by matching dollars from the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation and the Commonwealth of Philadelphia’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, making for a very positive public/private matching of funds for a new audience of healthy fan.
In northern New Jersey, the Devils continued their business platform growth, signing a record number of top tier corporate sponsors for the team and the Prudential Center, including five new brands and a 98 percent renewal rate for existing sponsors for 2012. A good amount of the partnership enhancements revolve around the team’s digital initiatives, which remain some of the strongest in professional sport. A solid group of active former players, along with New Jersey’s ability to drive engagement in a virtual atmosphere and a strong in-game experience has given the casual fan ways to engage with the team that had not existed in the not-too-distant past.
Further up the Turnpike, the Rangers continue to thrive both on the ice and in the business arena, with a new partly refurbished Madison Square Garden to call home. The team has enjoyed its best start in years, and compliments that success on the ice by its ever-growing community work with the “Garden of Dreams” Foundation, which assists children in the tri-state area in many ways. Their business brand has not diminished in any way through difficult times, with sponsors like Volkswagen, and most recently, DKNY coming on board for wide ranging activation partnerships.
However the greatest national success for hockey in the area is tied to the Winter Classic. Promotions, social media, television and fan engagement have been tying the corridor together throughout the past few weeks, ranging from joint ads and programs with media in both markets to New York’s Empire State Building being adorned half in Flyers colors and half in Rangers colors all this week. The lynchpin of promotion for the Winter Classic is again HBO’s 24/7 series, which has brought the personalities on both teams to an audience which may never have known about the inner workings of either organization before.
All those elements, along with the work NBC will do to promote the game across all platforms, really raises the awareness for “Brand Hockey” in the region, not just for the teams and business involved but for anyone who touches the game, from youth programs and ice rinks to sports and apparel business to digital companies who may use sport as part of their consumer engagement platform. Even the state’s two minor league outposts, the Trenton Titans of the ECHL and the Wayne-based New Jersey Outlaws of the Federal Hockey League, have and should continue to see a bounce as casual interest in hockey on all levels continues to get a boost with the success of the NHL franchises in the area.
The past year of 2011 was a good one for those who enjoy the sport of ice and stick for sure, and it should set up even more interest for what is ahead into the spring in 2012. Millions will again take notice on Jan. 2 in Philly, and that casual glance will be a positive one for when people look to spend some discretionary dollars on sport in 2012 in the area.