Gary Bettman | Sports Marketing & PR Roundup

Hockey Poised For An Olympic-Sized Run After The Games…

While Sochi 2014 continues to march on into its second week, its stars, especially the American stars, are coming into focus in some of the larger platform events that casual fans love. The misses of Shani Davis and Shaun White continue to leave new openings for bobsled, figure skating and perhaps even more than ever before, for hockey.

The drama, some expected, some surprising, that Team USA has provided fans with as they enter the Quarterfinals this week has been terrific and has given at least short justification for the NHL shutting down their business for two weeks. Would hockey even on its best regular season Sunday that wasn’t in outdoors stadiums have generated enough buzz and interest when going against the NBA All-Star game, the run-up for Daytona, and pitchers and catchers reporting? Would regular season NHL have even been able to out-draw interest in an Olympics which the elite players were not participating in? Probably not.

For all the short-term issues created by a schedule stoppage, hockey can still be the big winner coming out of Sochi, with new stars, well rested players and the prime time drama which has the potential to be played out this week.  The biggest opportunity hockey will have going forward is something that no other Olympic medalist or team will have in the months coming; its own pre-set city by city night by night tour, called the NHL regular season and playoffs. The biggest bobsledders, the greatest figure skaters, the most dynamic downhill skiers who can all claim gold this week will not have the massive pre-planned platform that hockey will have when it returns to action. Every night casual fans will tune in to see their local teams, but they will also see some newly minted Olympic heroes from countries far and wide returning home to play not just once, but time and again. There will be multiple chances for U.S. and Canadian fans to see their returning heroes and re-live the memories already forged and those still to come, an opportunity which local marketers and community programs should be jumping on, and something which any other sport will have to concoct at breakneck pace once the games are concluded.

While going into the Games the NHL and NBC had a set list of stars to promote, the early run by Team USA has brought yet two new names to the forefront in St. Louis Blues hero T.J. Oshie and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Phil Kessel, both solid names in their own markets who now have national buzz for casual fans who until this past weekend may have never heard of them. While youth…and that’s important…youth shirts for USA Hockey with Oshie’s and Kessel’s names have been flying out the door and off sites like Fanatics.com, the more important element will how these new faces to most of the audience can be pushed forward through the rest of the winter and into the spring, when their teams are on the road, and how they can be partnered with the existing stars as the hockey tournament plays out.

Now several key places are already in the mix for “brand hockey” in the States. The grassroots push of “Hockey Weekend In America” is already set for the week following the Games, with a host of local celebrations in communities big and small to help bring the Olympic experience to many communities. College and high school games, along with the elite NHL and minor leagues, can now invest in social media sharing and re-living of Olympic moments that can be played out through on a large scale through the deep resources of the NHL-NBC relationship. Brands in various locales can also indirectly ride the Olympic crest of interest by partnering with teams and even former Olympians to help retell the stories of glory past and present, all of which can be revisited time and time again as hockey moves into the spring on various levels.

Now does all this mean that suddenly, as happened in 1980, there will be thousands of kids who never played hockey before suddenly rushing to rinks? Probably not. What it does mean is that hockey, and the NHL, have perhaps one of their best brand awareness platforms now in place to really bring in new ticketholders and consumers, and probably some additional sponsor partners. While some may say that Oshie’s success is limited in helping the Blues, it really lifts the overall hockey platform, and that rising tide can benefit everyone in the game from the grassroots to the NHL.

There will still be many skeptics as to the value of a league shutdown for several weeks, and a league like Major League Soccer is certainly watching closely how much the Olympics benefited the NHL as they go through a similar situation in some respects with World Cup this summer. Will the benefit to the NHL, which is perhaps even bigger than what the league went through following the Vancouver Olympics, be amplifies enough to  continue the partnership in 2018? Is there enough that is built for the NHL to try and do its own World Championships in the fall, like MLB has tried to do with the World Baseball Classic and soccer does with World Cup? Hard to say if that Olympic buzz would translate to a non-Olympic event away from the buzz of the Games.

What is pretty clear is that hockey is structured for a very unique test of brand growth in the coming weeks after the Games, one which any Olympic sport would love to have to keep the flames fanned for casual and brand interest, and one which could help propel interest and engagement in the game to new heights of casual interest and brand development in markets large and small.

The Winter Classic Wins Are Just Beginning…

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.

Devils Brand Better Than Where It Was…

Thursday brought a sigh of relief at the NHL offices as the sale of the New jersey devils were announced. The league would not have to go through the pain and brand stagnation that was experienced when no buyer could be found for the Phoenix Coyotes, and some new, enthusiastic blood was being brought into league ownership. That’s the good news. The sad news was closing  of a chapter in the history of the  Devils with the sale of the team to Philadelphia 76ers owner and investment moguls Josh Harris and his group, because Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, from a marketing standpoint was a plus for the league as well.

From a brand standpoint it should read well for the outgoing owner  in many aspects. While the short-term financial status of the club is what brought about the sale, Vanderbeek’s passion to build and invest in the franchise on the business side, in many ways matched the building that Lou Lamoriello had created on the on-ice side. The two built an overall competitive brand in a major market that many thought could never support a viable NHL team, and in an arena that is state-of-the art and in many ways is still in its initial stages of helping lead a resurgence of business in Newark.

Now the story of the Devils as a brand today is certainly not without its large financial warts, and it is because of the financial burden now upon the team that Thursday’s announcement came along, but there is no doubt that the franchise of today is more established and has more potential for success than the one that Vanderbeek purchased in 2004.

Those Devils of old were highly successful on the ice, but were a large group of faceless players not known in any way by the casual fan in the New York area, playing in an arena (what started as Brendan Byrne, changed to Continental Airlines, and ended as the Izod Center) that was devoid of personality and amenities needed to help make the team more viable from a business perspective. They won on the ice but continually lost at the box office, in broadcast ratings and in the business battle with all the other franchises in the tri-state area.

Vanderbeek, a success on Wall Street with a passion for hockey, saw an opportunity to grow the Devils brand beyond the 14,000 fans it had, and give the team its own home, which ended up being the Prudential Center in Newark, the first completed arena in the building renaissance that has gone on in the region in the last 10 years. The team made the move, created a showplace that was fan-friendly, respective of tradition and encompassed all that was good- not about hockey- but about New Jersey. It certainly was not easy, and many scoffed at the idea of hockey in an urban environment like Newark, but the organization made sure that every experience for fans was a positive one, and the franchise took more shape than ever before.

The team became markedly more about New Jersey, with a style and a personality that reflected a growing audience of casual fans who knew more about the players now through their work in the community than ever before. The Devils implemented digital and social media platforms to expand their footprint to the top of the NHL, and found ways to incorporate new brands into the game experience. All the while “The Pru” became more of a known and accepted destination for all events from a New Jersey suburban crowd that became used to train or car trips to Newark; something that was unheard of before the arena and the team took hold there. The building around the arena of new businesses may not be meteoric, but it is steady, with new projects expanding the arena footprint each month.

For sure the Devils are not a night in and night out sellout, especially in these challenging times and with a team that has missed the playoffs two of the last three years, with a Stanley Cup finals run sandwiched in between. However the nights of 12,000 crowds are well gone, and the amount of Devils recognition in the state is well beyond anything it was in the Meadowlands.

The new owners, who might get some backlash from their Philly ties about owning a team just up the turnpike from the rival Flyers, will have some big financial hills to climb and need to face the financial challenges over keeping an arena and a team moving upwards in a market where the landscape is more challenging from a venue perspective than ever before. However, from a brand recognition standpoint they are getting a product in more solid hands than what was there when Vanderbeek and his partners took the reins, and they have a progressive and marketing savvy organization that understands its place in the larger community in the state, playing in a solid and strong state of the art facility. It will be an intriguing new chapter to watch the sport in the Garden State, as one passionate owner exits and a new group begins for the only pro franchise that calls New Jersey…and New Jersey only…its home.

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.

Grabbing The Quietest Weekend In Sports…

A blizzard blanketed the Northeastern United States (kudos to The Weather Channel folks by the way, who took a lot of heat from The National Weather Service when they started naming winter storms like hurricanes but struck gold with Nemo!) this weekend, leaving millions with nothing to do but dig out and turn on the TV and fire up the computer. With the Super Bowl buzz a distant memory, and the NBA All-Star game a week away, there is a surprising gaping hole in the sports calendar this weekend that teams and brands may look to exploit in future years. The NHL for example, would have had its All-Star weekend the week before the Super Bowl (in Columbus, Ohio, helping a franchise…the Blue Jackets... that may be the least known of any team amongst the five major North American sports leagues), but that weekend still had the rise to Super Bowl and even the Pro Bowl. This weekend? Other than regular season NBA and NHL and college hoops? Nothing. USA Hockey has made NEXT weekend Hockey Weekend Across America, but it butts against the NBA All-Star Weekend…why not this weekend?

Now next year will be a bit different, as we will slide into the first weekend of the Sochi Olympics. But even the Winter Olympics will be six hours away from the States,  and usually the first few days do not bring the major events. Can the NHL take advantage and drop some elite early round pool matchups into those days, and in turn make the weekend in the States all about brand hockey? Peewee, minor league and college? Would be a great play. Could NASCAR  move Daytona back into the quiet week? How about a sport like lacrosse, with its indoor pro game, finding a place in the crowded schedule? Gold is tied to warm weather, tennis is indoors in Europe, but how about Davis Cup, which somehow decided to play a US-Brazil tie LAST WEEKEND in Jacksonville, Florida. Going up against the Super Bowl, even for a sport that says it is more global and doesn’t concern itself with local events, did not help the USTA or the sport, and a very exciting 3-2 result was lost amidst commercials for Super Bowl and mega pre game shows.

How about amateur and fitness sports? This past Wednesday was National Girls and  Women in Sports Day…yet it garnered little coverage and was lost in the post-Super Bowl hangover, the one year to Sochi campaigns and other mid-week happenings. How could such an important demo…from moms who are decision makers to young women who need to be active as part of a healthy lifestyle to elite and telegenic female athletes…be lost in the mix by brands and Madison Avenue. This week Sports Illustrated will unveil its swimsuit issue as part of Fashion Week in New York, and that well marketed “tribute ” to beauty and sport for sure will not get lost in the shuffle. Baseball? Pitchers and catchers have started to report and some teams will hold fan fests, but the logistic transition of most teams make this a difficult weekend to convene in most major markets, unless you are a warm weather club lie the Marlins or DBacks who don’t have to go far.

Now maybe the psyche needs a respite from the Super Bowl, and we needed a weekend of nothing. However if you are a league, a sport, a brand looking to engage and carve a niche, this weekend seems to be a good annual one. The NFL has found a great spot opening their season the Thursday after Labor Day unencumbered. The Kentucky Derby has its spot. The Masters has its own place on the calendar. The weekend after Super Bowl seems ripe for someone to claim and build upon, lets see if someone grabs it.

Can Brand NHL Score On The Rebound?

This weekend we get a welcome respite from the games off the field…more games ON the field, and more importantly to the business overall, games back on the ice. The NHL returns after its extended lockout to a breakneck pace highlighted by conference-only schedules, little player movement and the equity that survived in major markets following the Los Angeles Kings taking the Stanley Cup from the New Jersey Devils  last June.

So did the NHL benefit at all from the lockout? Well there is labor piece that came without losing a season. NBC, their major US broadcast partner, saw ratings drops with alternative programming that should give the league some props as to their value in the marketplace as a partner. Teams also spent the lockout doing the best they could engaging with fans through advanced alumni events, special skating parties, and providing more added value than ever before. The teams also got to spend even more time in refining a social strategy that will be implemented now in the shorter season, as well as making sure customer service, which remains an issue with some franchises in sport, is top notch.

The league will also benefit in the fact that most of the major American franchises…New York, Philly, Boston, LA, Chicago, Detroit…will have exciting and robust squads to hit the ground. The rebuilding seems to be in secondary markets, which will help add to the night in, night out excitement of the world’s fastest game. The league is also coming back with a schedule and at a time when hockey is really more top of mind than ever before. They will get a surprising bit of help from a quiet second weekend, the bye week before the Super Bowl, which again can provide a little more casual exposure for the sport to those looking to tune in for an event to replace football. Then in two weeks, the NFL goes and the stage is set for hockey and hoops for a clean six week stretch in the US and Canada before baseball comes into play. Just long enough to enjoy, not long enough to get bored.

Now was there lockout downside? Sure. No Bridgestone Winter Classic was a big blow, but one that can be revived in years to come. The loss of income to those whose business was around the games is something that can never be replaced either. However if the lockout did make the game more healthy, and put the sport in for a very exciting run to the playoffs, all negativity will be a memory before long. Each team has set up very strong promotional planes for the games return, and those matched with strong play from a global cast can mean that maybe, just maybe “Brand NHL” can recapture its momentum as fast as the game itself, and get right back to engaging without missing much of a beat.

 

Can Brand NHL Recover And Will Anyone Care?

As we fast approach the holidays it’s amazing the difference…or rather…the indifference is in the sport and business world with brand NHL. At this time last year the sport was buzzing with hot franchises in key markets like New York, Philly, Boston, and Los Angeles. The league and its partners were gearing up for a landmark festival of hockey around the Winter Classic, and NBC was enjoying helping a rebirth of the sport. The NBA was not yet back from its own lockout, the hockey had the fall to itself in many markets. They may not have grabbed fans from hoops, but they had a nice opportunity to sample casual fans and grow some equity as a strong winter gave rise to a renewed and growing interest in the sport. The LA Kings and the New Jersey Devils, two clubs that had not just embraced but showed great innovation in the social and digital space, met in a Stanley Cup Final  that brought the Cup to Southern California and a new legion of celebrities who found the game fun and exciting.

And that was that.

The lockout, and the stalemate between the league and the NHLPA has brought not just silence to rinks but really indifference to the casual fan. They have moved on to other things to spend their casual dollar on, and the league and the PA are hopeful that the tribal nature of the game will bring their core fans back when the lockout ends. After all, even with games now canceled until at least mid-January and the Winter Classic and All-Star games, the two biggest draws for casual eyeballs, now evaporated, sponsors have not yet bolted for other sports for the most part, and those with a jones for the game have watched a smattering of KHL contests and college hockey on regional networks and NBC Sports Network to see there is a game still out there.

Now if the lockout is settled and the season is played, there is probably cause for hope. This lockout is somewhat different from the previous season-cancelling one, since it was much clearer that the game itself was at stake if the balance of dollars did not shift. The result was not just a better financial model at the time, it brought about fan-friendly innovation and a renewed interest in a sport which had slowly lost its way even from many of its core fans outside of Canada. The new NHL was faster, more fun and more embracing of change. It was worth the season lost to invoke that change. This time? The battle is among large sums of money to be split by owners and players. It is the bane of the casual fans existence…wealthy parties struggling to split up large pools of cash. It’s less about the fans, much more about the dollars.

This time there are also differences in the media landscape [e and in fan engagement that are going to give the NHL trouble when returning to the ice, even if it is this year. While the NBA or the other two large team sports in North Americas, the NFL and MLB, really wont syphon off casual fans, soccer is much stronger than it was the last time the lockout occurred. There is very much a commonality between casual fans of soccer, and even lacrosse (another growing sport) and those of hockey. MLS has probably pulled some dollars from NHL spending and now with the major European clubs as a fixture on broadcast TV, it will be harder for hockey to fight its way into their customary spot in the big four team sports.

On the sponsor side there have yet to be any mass defections from a game that really has built more brand loyalty the last few years than it ever had before. There is a wait and see, and even a cost savings for brands without the NHL to this point, but should the full season go, those brands are going to need to find ways to engage the young male demo that hockey has. They can’t wait to do so until next fall. So where do those dollars go? Soccer, maybe MMA, maybe lacrosse or maybe even back to baseball for a look-see. That is a place where the NHL runs a great risk. If those brands find success in other sports, maybe they won’t return to hockey, as it is the result they need, not the sport they crave.  The other big risk is in the economy itself. The financial world as we know it today is different from when the previous lockout occurred. Even the strongest of franchises of sport have had issues moving all tickets and growing their brands, so can NHL franchises with a year away find a path back to stability and relevance? It is new and unchartered waters even if some say that the brand came back stronger the last time. There is a bigger difference in the passage of time.

Now in Canada the story is probably different. Hockey is the national game, and when the clubs return to the ice the feeling is the dollars and the fans will follow, whenever it is. The same probably holds true with a smaller core group in the States. They love the ruggedness and the speed of the game, and the franchises have done a strong job in recent years to build loyalty. However loyalty is a two way street even for the strongest of brands, and with a full year off, even some of those core fans may have been able to find events to spend some of their discretionary dollar on when the sport they loved was pulled away. Come back, probably…but will it be less often or at full price?

Even at this stage there are many losers no matter what happens when the game returns. Scores of workers who needed events to balance their budgets have lost dollars that will never return. Businesses around arenas will never recoup the cash that flowed on game nights, and arenas left in flux have lost valuable dates where they could have booked other events. While TV has filled the void thus far, the make good on local advertising salespeople also hurts.

Who wins? Well if the game is more financially viable the theory is everyone does in the long run. A healthier game for those at the top financially means brand NHL rebounds. However a rebellious climate today may not make that work as easily as it has in the past. There have not been mass protests or talk of another league starting up to sate the needs of the hockey fan this time as there have been in the past or with other sports. It is much more quiet indifference, and that quiet indifference, coupled with frustration, can be a very bad message for those who will look to revive the dormant NHL.

In the end, a January settlement and a short and exciting season will be a salve for wounds reopened for brand NHL. If the season slips away, the silence of arenas, of departing brands and of casual fans will be deafening for a brand that was on the rise again and came to a screeching labor halt.

Here’s to finding a big Christmas gift for the sport, a labor solution as we enter 2013. The huge risk may not be worth the overall reward.

As The NHL Lockout Looms, Can The Minors Make A Major Jump?

Just to be clear, there is little good that can come from an extended lockout for the NHL for those involved in the business of hockey. It comes at a time when the NHL and “brand hockey” has perhaps never been stronger in the eyes of a global public who have re-engaged or discovered the sport for the first time. While the clutter of the early fall may keep the lockout out of the minds of many casual sports fans in the United States for a few weeks, the dark clouds and loss of equity that can follow for both sides, especially with the NBA now back stronger than ever, the NFL going strong again and even college sports gaining equity, can be devastating for all involved in the game going forward.

So if the lockout continues and games are lost, is there any entity that could benefit in any way? Perhaps it could be in the minors. Unlike the two most recent lockouts, the NBA and the NFL, minor league hockey is a wide scale fallback for some looking for a hockey fix. While the NBA did have the D-League, the minor tiered minor league hockey system across North America is still pretty vast, with outposts from small markets in the south to emerging cities and even major cities like Chicago. It has many of the characteristics of minor league baseball as affordable fun and the affiliated leagues do hold the future stars of the game in their midst, all of which will be playing regardless of the NHL lockout. Their games can provide filler for regional networks, and their marketing partners could expand a bit wider if the NHL stays silent. Their are also a slew of very low minor league groups, some of which in places like Brooklyn for example, that could also get a little word of mouth bump for people needing a hockey fix.

Now in many ways minor league hockey and baseball couldn’t be father apart. Minor league baseball is an outdoor fun shared family experience. Minor league hockey is obviously indoors and is sometimes played in arenas which do not have the amenities or the charm of their minor league baseball compatriots. The game is still bred a bit more on violence in the minors, sometimes more akin to professional wrestling than the ebb and flow of a summer evening spent outside watching the local ball club. The budgets for many minor league hockey teams for promotion may also be much less than the best minor league baseball teams, creating a less than complete fan experience in some cases. Still even with the drawbacks, minor league hockey may be able to take advantage of a lack of NHL play to build its brand and its fan base.  Many affiliated clubs are not that far from the parent teams…Hartford, Albany and Bridgeport to the New York area, Providence to Boston, Hershey and Scranton to Philly etc., so the travel time for a weekend game in the winter is not that far out of the question. The rising execs in the minors for hockey are much like those in other sports…young people trying to be innovative and creative to move up the professional ladder, and the ability to stretch awareness using social media to a wanton fan base exists now more than ever.

Of course the best solution is for the NHL and the NHLPA to settle, the league to continue its growth and the halo effect from that growth trickles down to the minors as well. A rising tide floats all ships. However if the worst happens and the NHL does stay idle, the minor league clubs could benefit be added promotion, added eyeballs, added brand integration and maybe some additional fans, all looking for some fun entertainment on the ice while their primary source of hockey remains at the bargaining table.  It is a tricky slope not to bite the hands that feed you for the minor league teams, but an opportunity of necessity, not of choice, could exist for some exposure  in the short term.

A Garden State of Hockey Branding To Start 2012

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.

Hockey Is As Hockey Does…

One of the burning questions during the NBA lockout has been, “How does hockey, or the NHL, take advantage of the casual fan during a fall of no NBA hoops?” The answer is simple, they don’t, not really. One of the biggest misconceptions is that fans will jump to another sport or activity quickly to fill a void, and that other sports, leagues, activities should spend large amounts of dollars trying to grab more casual eyeballs. In reality, cultivation of fans takes a long time, and those passionate fans will return to their viewing habits over time when the lockout is settled. Also the assumption in these challenging time that casual fans will go and spend those same dollars on other sports or activities they may or may not like is also a bad one. In most cases those dollars will go to other leasure activities or they will be banked for when the activity they are passionate about comes back. So what do other sports like hockey do during the lockout? What they should do best, concentrate on their own strong and casual fan base.

That’s what the NHL is doing, and had planned to do regardless of the lockout. The hockey fan will get his first in a longtime dose of national coverage on NBC this Friday, followed by enhanced and expanded programs on Versus over the weekend. Many regional networks are filling their NBA void with college hockey (the annual sold out Cornell-Boston University at MSG will make it to air for the first time this weekend) or maybe some expanded NHL shows, which is also a help to reinforce the value of the sport to those flipping the dial. The NHL/NBC partnership even pulled in some added eyeballs with a presence in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Also on the content side, the ability to pitch and place personality stories about fans, players and the game itself is a bit wider without competition for space from the NBA, so a little more friendly ear from media decision makers can help grow the game a bit as well.

The fall is always crowded in the marketplace, and most fans don’t really engage in winter coverage until we are closer to the holidays. Now hockey does have a window for expanded content to remind those who do follow when the weather is colder to come aboard a bit earlier. It is less about conversion of hoops fans and more about enhancement of their own casual followers and reinforcing the support, with broadcast and brand partners, that hockey makes good business for the passionate core and the casual follower.

What hockey, especially the NHL, can and will do best with during these challenging times for the NBA is to focus on their core business and fans, and enhance their own product. When the NBA does come back it will fill its own void in a media frenzy. However until that point there is a void for content and feel good enhancement of a good product, and that is the best place to focus for the business of hockey.