Kings Prep Led To The Sunny Days Of Today…

It certainly has been a long slog for the L.A. Kings to reach the national spotlight, one that still has them battling with their Staples Center co-tenants the Lakers and the Clippers, as well as the currently struggling but still popular Angels and the newly reborn by ownership Dodgers for the attention of the sometimes fleeting and always busy casual sports fan in Southern California. For the hockey fan, except for the style of Rogie Vachon and Marcel Dionne in the 1970’s and Wayne Gretzky’s short lived but effective run later, the Kings have always been somewhat of a late night afterthought for most of North America.

However as this year’s club moves closer to the Stanley Cup Finals and a trip to either New York or close to Manhattan (New Jersey), the Kings have positioned themselves off the ice for mainstream and social success.

Off the ice, the longtime cultivation of tastemakers in Hollywood, led by producer and season ticketholder Jerry Bruckheimer has led to a passionate concentrated but solid following in entertainments influencer circle. The group, put together by Kings legend turned president of business operations Luc Robitalle several seasons ago, was made up of execs with an interest in the game who, when needed, would turn a favor for the team. Whether that was helping coax stars like Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks to the Staples Center, or providing thoughts on in-game entertainment, was determined by what was comfortable. It was not heavy handed, but it certainly became very effective as the teams on ice fortunes rose over the past few seasons, and requests from the Kings to their “friends” turned to requests from their friends to the team on how they could help. Like in New York and for the Lakers, drive-by’s for celebs on location in L.A. now included the Kings, a must-be-seen spot moving towards the level of the Knicks celebrity seats or the front row for Kobe and Company.

Also into that mix went the aggressive cultivation of local media, bloggers and others interested in getting access to the Kings, the players and their front office, all with the hope of garnering good will through access for when the sunny days on the ice matched the beautiful weather outside. While many teams still remain skittish about the blogosphere, the Kings saw an opportunity and grew a following.

The team also went to great lengths to acknowledge and then aggressively use the social media space to grow its footprint, especially as interest in the on-ice performance picked up as the 2011-12 season went along. As Chris Botta highlighted in this week’s Sports Business Journal, the team has made a sometimes edgy but always entertaining investment in engaging not just their fans, but hockey and sports fans in general, with the news and insight coming off their twitter feed and on to other areas of social media. It is not heavy on tech, it is fun, and has made the Kings grow their following to over 100,000 since the start of the playoffs.

Of course the real fruits of all this work lay ahead, with the potential of the Stanley Cup finals, an NHL title, and then increased marketing and sales opportunities for next year and beyond. L.A. also remains an uber-competitive marketplace with fickle fans being pulled in many directions, so converting the casual into the consistent is a challenge for everyone.

However what makes the opportunity of today real is the consistent legwork the team put into doing all the little things over the past few seasons. There was no instant payoff, and the cultivation had to be both strategic and consistent with no real 100 pct. Chance of an ROI. It isn’t like cultivating a sponsor who suddenly walks in with a big check. The payoff comes sometimes in immeasurable little wins. A gift to a studio head’s son here, an autographed puck or jersey to a blogger charity there, a thank you to a group of twitter followers through a promotion another time. Slow and steady is the build, but when the payoff of that work is matched on the ice, the team is in a position to reap the rewards.

Some may think planning for a sunny day in L.A. is easy. In the Kings case it probably wasn’t that easy, but now that it is here, they can enjoy the glow.

New York vs. L.A. Not A Bad Thing For Brand NHL…

There was a bunch of silly debate the last few days about the economic impact that the Washington Capitals may bring to the area around the Prudential Center in New Jersey should they upset the Rangers in Game Seven Saturday night at Madison Square Garden and then face the upstart Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals. That is no longer an issue for the NHL, who could have the number one and two TV markets in the country face each other in the finals for the first time since the Lakers and New Jersey Nets met in the NBA Finals in 2001-’02, or have the first full New York vs. LA Final since the New York Yankees met the LA Dodgers in 1978.

That matchup, at least from a brand standpoint, should be another jump forward for the NHL and its partner NBC as the sport continues an engagement renaissance in the United States. Of course the NBA still also has the Lakers and the Clippers alive in the playoffs as well, so it is hard to say if LA will become enamored with hockey, or if other hockey markets will suddenly be aware of the Kings, but that market matchup if it happens is certainly not bad news for the NHL or its partners.

Of the four teams left, New York has its well established following and with basketballs put away for the winter in Gotham, Henrik Lunquist and company could become kings of New York like they were in 1994 when they last won the Stanley Cup. For New Jersey, their renaissance is similar to what the NHL overall continues to experience.

It has been a rocky financial year for the Devils on many fronts. The issues with minority ownership and the recent issues with Newark Mayor Cory Booker have given the team its share of fits, and the lack of interest in the lame duck Nets had in their two transitional years from the IZOD Center to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn were also kind of a wash for New Jersey, who also owns the building. But from a branding and loyalty standpoint, the teams’ commitment to its growing fan base through social media engagement, its alumni work and the positive outreach by its players has made the season for the brand of the Devils as good as any since the franchise relocated from Colorado and eventually moved to The Pru.

The next round will bring lots of excitement and a full house that will fill the establishments around the building for pregame dinners, parking and other goings-on. It will be a commuter series, with Rangers fans coming via New Jersey Transit. There are no back to back nights in NHL Playoff action as there are in baseball, so to think that suddenly hotel rooms are filling with fans spending money is foolhardy. They will come if they are in and then go back down the Turnpike or to Penn Station and head back out.
More importantly for the Devils brand, the Rangers bring added media exposure from both a national and a regional perspective, with the Rangers media contingent much larger than New Jersey’s regular media following, despite the fact they are both in the same market.

The hardest part for New Jersey from a business perspective will be capturing the excitement regardless of who, and turning that into positive news for ticket sales and brand awareness next season. Still, the groundwork for that next level of engagement has already been laid in the combo of solid marketing and successful on ice performance, which of course will be enhanced even more should the team do well in this coming round.

That’s the value for New York. For those west of the Garden State, the Kings in the final does bring some glitz and glamor, more than the hopefully rescued business that the Phoenix Coyotes would, should they outlast the Kings in the Western Conference Finals. Phoenix has been a team twisting in the wind for the NHL for several years, but should ownership now stabilize they too can help breather life back into hockey in a non-traditional market. While many purists and probably several business partners, would prefer to see Phoenix play in a hockey-rich city like Quebec City going forward, the fact of the matter remains that the franchise has done amazingly well on the ice with their financial and market issues, and a trip to the Final could also help solidify the team.

Still, if you are a fan of hockey or sports business, the LA vs. New York matchup, Devils or Rangers, is one that could provide a little tantalization as a long and warm winter season of sport comes to a close.