The NHL survived and thrived during after this past year’s lockout, leveraging a breakneck schedule and some new faces, as well as an ever-improving relationship with NBC, to push new interest in the sport heading into a full slate of games in 2013-14. Still with their disputes settled, there was still uncertainty if one of their greatest platforms, the Olympics, would still be on the table. Friday came the official word that yes, the NHL and the Olympic games would continue their marriage, which is great news for followers of both.
There are several risks, big ones, that kept the relationship from being a no-brainer for hockey. The shutting down of the league for three weeks, with limited use of players who are going to the Games, is a huge issue, one which Major League baseball would not even consider in order to keep their sport in the Summer Games. However hockey has other bugger picture factors playing in its favor for inclusion in the Sochi Games.
TV: The NHL and the Olympics share a US domestic TV partner in NBC. Leveraging that relationship to get added focus on the NHL and added focus on Olympic hockey, benefits both and in no way causes a lull in hockey coverage during the Games, it actually ramps up the casual awareness of the sport.
Nationalism: More than any other team sport, hockey players seem to be drawn more toward the Olympic movement. There is NBA interest but it varies, soccer does not use elite players in the Olympic Games, it uses younger players, and tennis, played in a team format as well as singles, doesn’t really fit the model. Hockey players LOVED the Olympic experience and the chance to represent their country, especially since most of the hockey world championships are at a time when the NHL and KHL playoffs are on-going, keeping most stars away from their national teams. Outside of the US, playing for the national team in hockey rich countries like Canada, Sweden, and Russia is seen as a priority, and this partnership goes a long way in smoothing relations between the NHL and some of its partners.
No To All-Star, Yes To Outdoors: The Sochi Games gives the NHL an All-Star like platform without the issue of staging an All-Star weekend, which has waning interest in most sports anyway. The timing also gives the NHL a way to keep its real showcase event, the Winter Classic, and even amplify it this year with several outdoor games as a preview to Sochi.
Casual fan Interest: the NHL is always looking to engage more casual fans. The Olympics give them a prime time global platform to do so, and the resumption of the regular season should provide a great springboard to re-engage with those casual fans who tuned in for the Olympics and are intrigued to watch a little more. The Olympic platform also gives teams a new promotional platform post-games…come and see the Olympic stars as they return home. A great halo effect for the sport as the competition turns up in North America in March, with baseball starting, the NBA rolling along, and the NCAA tournament beginning.
There are headaches that can arise from Olympic hockey. The risk of injury in mid-season, the distraction of stopping and starting a season, and the need to keep local fans engaged at a point when they are really starting to love their hometown team, are all on the table. However with a long term look, arenas can now book those three weeks with other events, and teams can plan string promotions before and after the games themselves. Viewing parties, the use of athletes not in the Games in fan interaction programs, and even sponsor events like viewing parties market by market, can create a better ROI for teams, brands and the league than maybe even having regular season games in that window.
In the end it is a smart move for hockey overall, and a risky but hopefully effective venture for the NHL and its players. A new and effective platform for brand hockey is off and running. At a time when the sport is again on an uptick.