NHL marketing challenges lie ahead

How will the NHL win back the fans? It's a big challenge that calls for imaginative measures.

Updated: June 22, 2005, 1:04 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

One national sports marketing expert likens the NHL's lockout to a hotel chain that's had one of its properties burn down. Even though there's been a loss, the fire represents an opportunity for renewal, a chance to create something dazzling from something old and decrepit.

In the NHL's case, the lockout has made a smoldering mess of 30 franchises across an entire continent.

Now, as the league and its players march steadily toward a resolution to their nine-month hockey stoppage, one of the most crucial challenges facing the two sides is how the NHL will market itself out of those ashes.

"In actuality, this could be a blessing in disguise because you have an opportunity to reinvent," said Rob Cornilles, president and founder of Game Face Inc., a Portland-based firm that has worked with 20 of the NHL's 30 teams on a variety of marketing issues.

To that end, the NHL has pledged to unveil an aggressive, "very creative and a nontraditional," marketing campaign aimed at rebuilding fences with fans and sponsors and trumpeting a new product on the ice.

It is a campaign built on an unprecedented partnership between owners, players and the league.

"For the first time, hopefully, we'll have a marketing partnership with our players. We've never had one before," said Bernadette Mansur, the NHL's group vice president of communications.

Officials with the players' association agree that a unified approach to reselling the game to a cynical sporting public will be crucial to the league's revival. Players have already contacted NHL offices asking what they can do to help, offering their services for ad campaigns, public service announcements, commercials and interviews.

"We basically have to help facilitate it and we will," one union official said. "You're going to have to get the players on TV and on the big shows. Get them on Letterman. That stuff has to be pushed and pushed and pushed."

Contrary to some reports, the league has not reached a deal to manage this marketing renaissance although the league has met with major marketing companies in New York and California who might want "to share in that nontraditional approach," Mansur said.

Even with the players on board, repairing a fractured relationship with fans and sponsors who've done without the NHL for an entire season will be a daunting task. It will be crucial to the future of a league whose economic structure is certain to be based on players and owners' sharing league-wide revenues.

Some in the marketing industry are skeptical the NHL can pull it off.

"No one has been able to say, 'We're putting the best interests of the sport and the fans first.' No one has been able to say that yet," said Jim Andrews, editorial director of the publication IEG Sponsorship Report. "Maybe this was a traumatic enough event that it will force them to forge a new relationship."

But Andrews, an admitted cynic about these things, isn't holding his breath. If his cynicism is justified, the NHL can forget returning to its glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the NHL was the hot sporting property in North America.

"I think it's going to be very, very difficult for them to do that," Andrews said.

Although the exact details of the NHL's marketing plan aren't yet known, some of the strategies include attempts to market its star players in a more aggressive way. Better access and a more friendly relationship with the media have been promised in the hopes of promoting players and their stories.

The league is looking to expand access to players and coaches during games, beyond the traditional between-period interviews.

The NHL, which claims that hockey fans are the most technologically savvy of all pro sports fans, will focus a portion of its marketing energies on the cyber world. It will also work to improve the at-home experience for an ever-waning television audience, employing new camera angles, microphones on players and coaches and the use of high definition television production.

"The opportunities that exist for us with high definition television are enormous," Mansur said.

The campaign, which will also include a subtly redesigned NHL logo, will likely begin in earnest sometime in August building toward the start of the 2005-06 season. That's assuming, as most hockey observers have, that a deal is completed sometime early in July.

"It has got to include fan input and player input and we can't do that until we're finished with the business side of things," Mansur said. "It's like an orchestra. You play each instrument when it's needed and eventually you get to the crescendo."

There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship between the game's stars and the games they play.

Marketing specialists say the league has to follow through on its commitment to improve the flow of games and increase scoring.

"You can't juice a puck or cork a stick, so you've got to change the rules," said Doug Drotman, president of Drotman Communications, a sports marketing and public relations firm in the New York area.

Like dominoes falling, the theory suggests that if the on-ice product is enhanced and the stars correctly marketed, the fans will come back and the sponsors will follow the fans and their money.

"It grows itself from there," Drotman said.

The danger, of course, is that in trying to remake itself, the league loses sight of what has made it successful in the past.

"You don't want to destroy the equity that has been there all along, and that's the insanely loyal ban base," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

"The sport of hockey will have a team dynamic to it that will always make it unique," said Swangard, who was a diehard Canucks fan growing up in British Columbia. "That's something you don't want to destroy."

Most marketing experts agree that placating the fans first will be the key to moving forward. Most teams are expected to offer significant incentives to season-ticket holders and reductions in ticket prices across the board. Special promotions and events are a given in all NHL cities.

But Swangard said whatever the gestures teams and players make, "they have to be authentic."

"Does it seem like a legitimate form of apology? Or did it seem like something they were doing because it was a strategy handed down by a Harvard MBA?" Swangard said. "Just discounting prices in your upper bowl and calling it done would be silly.

"You have to give them an unexpected delight."

The Tampa Bay Lightning, for instance, are planning a series of promotions for season-ticket holders who did not withdraw their money during the lockout. The team plans to reward those fans with replicas of the Stanley Cup rings presented to Lightning players.

Teams should have have taken the time during the lockout to re-evaluate their entire business practices and reach out to sponsors and fans, Cornilles said.

The teams that didn't panic and kept staff on during the lockout will be in the best position to embrace a new way of doing business regardless of how the team is performing, he said.

"Winning is the cherry on the sundae. If you don't have a cherry, you can still enjoy the sundae. For some NHL teams, that requires a dramatic overhaul," Cornilles said.

Have most of the teams taken advantage of the lockout to improve their business practices?

"Some of them have done that. But most of the clubs have not. They just sat there waiting for news from New York," Cornilles said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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