One of the great growth opportunities that appears to be occurring in conjunction with the rise of hockey interest in North America this winter is the expansion of interest in the college game. Whether its the effort of NBC Sports to expand its weekly coverage, the halo effect that the NHL’s added buzz from the Bridgestone Winter Classic and the other outdoor games, the Sochi Olympics, the endless showings of “Miracle” on cable TV the past few weeks or the polar vortex driving people to frozen ponds and rinks, the interest in the college game is markedly changed as a property.
Now in places where the college game has always been strong; the upper Midwest and New England, things are status quo, with 35,000 fans showing up for Notre Dame and B.C,’s “Frozen Fenway” doubleheader earlier this month, and thousands of other enjoying the high school and other college games, along with the public skating sessions, that also went on atop the covered grass of the Red Sox home. The entire event built great equity in all things hockey.
However to go beyond incremental growth there needs to be more of a breakthrough into the mainstream by creating a signature, sustainable event that marketers can activate around and the industry can use as a centerpiece to cultivate new interest. Yes there is the legendary Beanpot in Boston, and the Frozen Four has gotten legs to bring the best of elite NCAA hockey to vastly different markets, but a signature event can lift and be a showcase for all things college hockey.
In recent years promoters have brought the biggest programs to NHL rinks in Detroit and Pittsburgh, Denver and Chicago, all with their one-off variable degrees of success. Even in the New York area, the hardest of markets to crack, a Thanksgiving weekend game with Cornell as the feature has filled Madison Square Garden for several years, with minimal exposure and promotion, and this past fall the Prudential Center cane upon the unique opportunity of having Yale, the defending NCAA Champion, open its season on their ice, to some success.
However this past weekend, an attempt was made to put a classic rivalry known by both casual sports fans and the general consumers alike, front and center as the annual signature game in the largest marketplace possible. The matchup was Harvard and Yale, dubbed “Rivalry on Ice,” a chance to give both the schools with solid hockey traditions a special place on the biggest stage, the remodeled Madison Square Garden. Moving the matchup took several years and lots of scheduling fits and starts before the game and all its trimmings came together, and the result was a germ of a successful overall promotion that could be built upon as a lynchpin for college hockey’s greatest going forward.
The overall concept was wide-ranging, pulling in all sorts of events throughout the day, from an alumni game to youth promotions to traditional brand activation platforms in and around the game. The matchup played off of NBC’s expanded college platform to draw a national audience in primetime on NBC SportsNet, and had the foresight to harness the marketing and brand mojo of legendary Hall of Famer Mark Messier, who has familial ties to the Crimson (nephew Luke Esposito is on the team), to generate ancillary press (which Messier is using to also promote his-mega rink project in The Bronx with the City of New York) and the cache of landing Secretary of State John Kerry as another ambassador through his ties to both schools. “Rivalry on Ice” also had history on its side, since the first time the two schools met in hockey was actually in 1900 at long-departed St, Nicholas Rink. There were bands. Glee clubs, good social media banter, even a session with Messier on reditt to help promote the event and raise the causal interest in the sport.
Did it work? In many ways, especially for a trial effort, yes. The legendary schools enjoyed the exposure away from the normal areas where they would draw large crowds for such a matchup. There was tremendous goodwill generated by all the celebrity banter back and forth, the alumni associations enjoyed the chance to engage with their former students in a building and a setting that they are not normally used to use for an athletic event involving either school, and some unusual new brands…Turkish Airways, Mead Brown resorts, among others, got to mingle with both the elite schools but also with the other traditional sports sponsors you would see along the dasher boards at MSG.
Were there drawbacks? Several. While Harvard-Yale is an elite rivalry, the schools do not have the massive sports-crazed alumni following of say a Notre Dame or a Michigan, so ticket sales were a challenge when you passed a point of say, 10,000 or so. The date also ended up competing with the New England Patriots AFC Playoff game, something which could not have been predicted but probably lessened the interest in some parts of the viewing and engagement areas for casual fans. There were lots of solid players and a long history, but New York usually commands superstars, and a dominant name as a draw probably also dropped casual interest. Still even with a few wrinkles, the overall perception was that Rivalry on ice achieved its first time out of the box goals…to create a marketable concept and show a market interest that few thought existed; a viable event in a market that does not normally take to one-off successes.
So where to go from now? Is it Harvard-Yale every year? Is it other rivalries that can have the legs to fill a building at ease? Does the concept have legs to the other arenas in the area clamoring for big games and big promotions? Can it expand to a day-long celebration in the building vs. just a hockey game between to elite schools? Can a brand see the value and invest not as a one-off, but in the long term for the series because they have a substantial investment in seeing the project help grow their brand? All to be determined.
As a concept, “Rivalry on Ice” scored for its uniqueness. Now on to see if the uniqueness can be sustained. Regardless for 2014, the game and all its trimmings made for another nice positive statement for “Brand Hockey,” with outdoor games on the horizon, and the Olympics ready to again lift the sport in the coming weeks.