Brand NHL Bounces Back…Again

So the NHL rocketed into the playoffs this week, the third straight winter that a league leveraged a lockout to more excitement, social media buzz, and brand equity for fans of short memory. First it was the NFL, which lost offseason and preseason before settling, then the NBA ramped up at Christmas, and now hickey moved into 2013 before it got things in order. For those who have said that shorter seasons breed excitement without pushing fans too far, they once again may be right.

Now for better or worse the NHL had lots of data and experience, both empirical and anecdotal, to know what and how to get things rolling and how to communicate with fans. In lockouts past, silence was golden, and that led to a lot of hurt feelings and backlash against the sport that was in court and boardrooms instead of playing. This time out the NHL and the NHLPA, as soon as the LA Kings lifted last year’s Stanley Cup, were already prepping fans and brands for the rainy day which came.

As training camps did not open and the season was delayed, teams used all their social channels, as well as alumni and other assets to try and jeep fans as engaged as possible. Broadcasts of minor league games, free skating sessions in arena, and loads of community work trued to soften the blows, and there was always a flow of social media to discuss what was or wasn’t going on in negotiations. The NHL also had the unique situation of having gone through extended lockouts before, and even casual fans seem to have come to expect labor strife to enter into the daily doings of their favorite sports now. It is less shock, and probably more acceptance.

The league and teams also pulled no pinches with brand partners…they communicated effectively and clearly and made sure that “make goods” were to be in order once play did resume. Although the league’s hallmark event, the Winter Classic, was lost, as was the All-Star Game, fans expectations of a return to the ice probably wavered less than at any point during any other labor stoppage.

So what was the result when the game came back? Attendance rose, digital engagement improved, TV ratings held firm, the intensity of a short season took over, rivalries heated up *since there was no play out of conference), and the interest in Brand NHL held strong going into the playoffs.

The league also got a nice bump with a playoff return for some key markets, most notably Toronto after nine years out of the playoffs, and a stronger team in Montreal (facing rival Ottawa in round one), so that Canada’s national sport seemed to be returning with even bigger ad stringer interest than before. In the States, the New York islanders surprising push to the playoffs, bolstered by their impending move from Long island to the promotion-crazy Brooklyn and the record start of perhaps the most cohesive hockey business in the game, the Chicago Blackhawks, was also a very big plus in generating buzz and interest.  Drop in hickey towns like St, Louis, New York, and Boston, and even with a city like Philly on the outside looking in, many of the essentials for major market success seem to have found their way into an exciting NHL run.

Of course there is always a downside to any lockout and its unpredictable end. Brands that have done extensive planning with creative programs in past years were thwarted in their execution this season, and the lack of interdivisional play certainly hurt the national marketing of some of the game’s greatest stars as much as it helped enhance rivalries. The continued uncertainty of the Sochi Olympics still remains, but an unveiling of multiple outdoor games, including one to cross promote with the Super Bowl in New York, will ramp up some long term enhancements for brand NHL next fall.

In the end, fans and brands and broadcast partners want the content and the excitement of top level play.  The NHL pushed the envelope probably to the brink this time but in the end the game survived and seems to thrive again. End of the day, that’s what will bring the casual spend back. Fans may have short tempers these days, but in the case of work stoppages, they seem to have even sorter memories, and for the big business of North American sport, that is probably a good thing.