The Bridgestone Winter Classic on New Year’s Day is being touted as the best ever and impossible to top. True? Depends on your perspective, but for “brand hockey” this year’s New Year’s Day Game is even more potentially impactful than all the games held before as it becomes the launch point for the sport as we head toward not just the Winter Olympics but the outdoor games coming up across North America, all of which should help elevate the sport, not drag it down from what happened for over 100,000 frozen fans in The Big House Wednesday.
While some will say the hockey wasn’t great or that the rest of the outdoor series will play second fiddle to what is the signature game on the first of the year every year, the truth is that all of the games, collectively, nationally and regionally, have the NHL in the bigger media conversation in key markets, and each will have their own appeal and as a whole, can help stir buzz, brand interest and the bottom line for all things hockey, especially for casual fans. Are two games at Yankee Stadium, involving the Rangers, Devils and Islanders, too much? Not if the ticket sales and media coverage say they are not. Is there a need for a game at Dodger Stadium? If there is brand support and media coverage that will easily trump what the game would get at The Staples Center or in Anaheim so what’s the downside? Does a game in Vancouver cause a problem? The Canucks sell out anyway, all of Canada will watch regardless…moving the game to an unusual, throwback location again enhances what would have just been another day in the NHL regular season. All these events become not just destination viewing, but they become sponsor enhancements, merchandising opportunities, fan engagement points, and most importantly, a vehicle to showcase the sport to a casual lineup who may now use discretionary dollars to come see another game inside.
Then there are the Olympics. Again USA Hockey was met with some criticism by latching the Team USA announcement on the back of the Winter Classic, and doing it live vs. doing it as a stand-alone event? Standalone event when and where and for who? You have your signature event and the biggest audience you will find, why not showcase on the network who will be carrying you, who the faces that they will be seeing (at least the Americans) will be? The NHL, just like the Olympics, is built on personalities as well as stellar athleticism, and bringing the faces of Team USA to the audience…the casual audience was a good move not just for the day, but to create a bridge that can run all the way to Sochi.
Next up are the brands that connected through NBC and the NHL. The ones that delivered customized programs…like Enterprise and Bridgestone…probably id the most to maximize their spend and tie directly to the game and its pageantry. For others, the association is solid but is not as impactful, and having that leverage…with a payoff somewhere (in game, online etc.) is becoming more and more invaluable for brands and ROI.
On the NBC side, the flow of programming in and around not just the game but leading up to, and now through the next few months across all NBC platforms is invaluable to the NHL. Naysayers will still point to Nielsen numbers and say hockey draws what hockey draws, but what Olympic sport would not want the advance exposure that hockey received and will continue to receive going towards the Games in Sochi and beyond. On the digital side, the ancillary programming created around hockey lifts not only the Olympic effort but the reach of individual teams as well, and the Ross Bernstein-led creative effort to take fans in and around all the events of hockey in the coming months (which will air across the NBC Networks and look much like 24/7 does for HBO) will only enhance the fan, the brand and the team experience for the sport.
The result is a strong multi-tiered platform with a signature standalone national event that brand hockey has built off of for the coming months. “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 Sochi and then hopefully a long and fruitful playoffs.
So what does all this mean for the long term? Will millions of people start wearing jerseys as a fashion statement, and will ratings start rivaling the Super Bowl? No. Does it mean that every year we will need multiple outdoor games? If the marketplace says yes, then why not? How about an All-Star game outdoors in a large market without an NHL team, or in a place like Russia, like the KHL did in Red Square several years ago? It only loses its luster if it becomes stale, and this far the game is in no way stale.
What it means is the NHL has taken the time to find ways to seed a fertile market and understood they needed to take care of the strong fan first, then move to the casual hockey fan and then finally find ways not just to connect, but to continually engage the average guy and girl on the street. Some of it is good fortune; some of it was smart business. It really doesn’t matter which weighs more. What matters is “brand hockey” is stronger because the leadership took the time to build where their fans are, and when the snow came out they had the right pieces in place to engage not just for one event, but for the long term to make the sport and all its partners stronger for what should be a memorable run for all involved.