NHL's new ads reflect uphill battle

Updated: September 26, 2005, 5:27 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The NHL offered a first glimpse of its new ad campaign Wednesday night, and the experience was akin to watching a movie trailer: lots of flash, lots of drama, lots of promise.

But will "The New NHL" be the kind of entertainment worth shelling out your hard-earned bucks to see in person -- or will it be a "wait for video" experience?

Can a Hollywood fantasy help drive a better reality for a league that just endured the first season-long work stoppage in North American pro sports history?

The NHL wants you to buy a ticket to find out. To that end, they're presenting their product as a cinematic vision, using quotes from a 2,500-year-old military treatise to complement the plot line.

Mark Cuban, whose network HDNet broadcasts NHL games, thought the ad strategy was appropriate and revolutionary.

"I think the NBA could learn something from this," said Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks. "Because it's different, it's shocking in some respects and if this works, everyone's going to steal it. I've been pushing for something like this instead of marketing within the church."

Many of the players, league personnel and media who also attended the unveiling at The Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan on Wednesday night also, not surprisingly, gave the idea rave reviews.

"I think it can help bring fans and keep fans," said Tampa Bay Lightning center Brad Richards.

But others, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, didn't want to overstate the importance of the advertising. Bettman said it was "just one element of the relaunch," which also includes the new NHL shield, rules changes like crackdowns on interference and two new TV partners in OLN and NBC.

"The ad is going to help," new Flyers center Peter Forsberg said. "But we have to have a good game even if we have a good ad."

All of the players who attended the event -- Lightning stars Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vinny Lecavalier, Flyers standouts Forsberg and Robert Esche and Canadiens defenseman Sheldon Souray -- put their game faces on for reporters, all guaranteeing a faster, more exciting game; a game that, along with the ad campaign, will win back fans.

The ads were conceived by a company called Conductor, an entertainment marketing company that has contributed to campaigns for "Spider-Man" and Green Day music videos.

For the NHL, the team created a series of commercials and print ads that will be released next week. The commercials will be packaged in a five-part story that will unfold through February.

The first spot, titled "It's Time," carries a theme of war. The player (an actor, not an NHL player) is in a locker room, surrounded by candles and accompanied by a woman who ceremoniously helps him don his hockey garb. The ads feature quotes from Sun Tzu's "The Art of War" along with dramatic camera work and music reminiscent of the film "Braveheart." The ad campaign's visual effects director Mike Fink served in a similar capacity on the Mel Gibson epic.

"This is a metaphor for a story as it relates to the emotional journey of a player," said Conductor CEO Tim Tennant, who noted the spots will have a local flavor as the protagonist will don specific team jerseys in their respective markets.

Bettman said the league couldn't use real NHL players because of the short amount of time since the lockout's end and because of free agents on the move.

Players offered few suggestions to improve the content of the advertising other than Esche, who said his version would have included Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood.

But, as with all advertising, if a customer is convinced enough to try a product, it still comes down to how good that product is when it comes time to sample it.

Former ESPN and current NBC and OLN hockey analyst Bill Clement said fans need an open mind.

"Come back once, and see what you think," he said. "If you don't like it, then call me."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter