How to Sell the NHL  
May 29, 2006

Many have pondered the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Right about now the National Hockey League should be pondering a similar question; namely, “If the NHL playoffs are on OLN, a channel most people aren’t even aware of, are they really happening?” I assume that if you’re reading this you’re a sports fan so there is a fairly good chance that you are aware of the NHL and at least a 50-50 shot that you’re aware that the league is well on its way to engraving more names on hockey’s holy grail, the Stanley Cup. But beyond that, even most sports fans are oblivious as to what is happening with the NHL and its playoffs. Few can name all four conference finalists, and fewer still can name more than a couple players on each team. The post-lockout NHL has upgraded its on-ice product via rule changes and an infusion of young talent, but still has a severe marketing problem. Below I will present some ideas which would help the league grow its fan base, revenue streams, and visibility.

 

The NHL needs to look at the sporting landscape and re-evaluate its attitude and its positioning. As someone who likes hockey, I tend to say there are four major sports leagues in America: NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Hockey people seem to get upset if the NHL is dropped from that list, but I think its time they accepted and embraced the fact that the NHL is not on par with the other three leagues. Instead of trying to blend in and clump themselves with the Big Three, the NHL should look for ways to positively differentiate itself. For cues on how to do this, they should look to the Arena Football League, which started with an idea for a sport jotted on a manila envelope in 1981 (and did not begin play until several years later) and has grown into a significant factor on the North American sporting landscape, drawing millions of fans annually, playing its games on network and cable television, and even recently starting a successful minor league.

 

The AFL focused on the fan experience. They realized that the Big Three had become too “big-time” for many people to be able to enjoy attending games, and tried to fill that gap. The NHL should go a similar route. The AFL requires that its players stick around on the field after games to sign autographs. At a time when most athletes in the Big Three seem unapproachable, the NHL should reach out to its fans and potential fans by making their players more available. Take down the glass after games and let fans line the rink and get some autographs while chatting with the players. If that’s not possible, set up an area inside the arena where players and fans can congregate together after a game for similar purposes. I’ve seen this done at Cal basketball games, so I’m confident that the NHL can find a way to make it work. The players may find that they really enjoy the interaction as well. Additionally, hold open practices and invite fans to come out. The San Jose Sharks regularly have open practices, but few know about it. Why not announce the next few practice times at the end of each home game and on the team’s website? Why not encourage fans to show up and see how their favorite teams and players prepare, how coaches and players interact in a more intimate setting than real games? Youth and other amateur hockey players may especially be interested in this and could be drawn into becoming bigger fans through this interaction. People are much more likely to follow a sport and a player if they have a personal connection, and this especially goes for children.

 

The old tobacco slogan “hook ‘em while they’re young” definitely applies to sports marketing.  If you ask a real (loyal, non-bandwagon, non-sunshine patriot) sports fan why they became a fan of their team, far and away the most frequent answer is some form of, “when I was young my dad took me to a game.” Its not always the dad and its not always attending games (watching on television, listening to radio, going to practice, etc., can work just as well), but the general story remains the same. American soccer organizations made the mistake of assuming that if they could grow youth soccer participation, it would dramatically grow interest in the sport as adults. So far, they have been wrong. What they needed, and what the NHL needs, is live attendance, interaction with players, and family bonding moments with hockey as the framework. This will cause people to form positive associations with the NHL, and get those kids and adults to want to relive those bonding and interactive experiences.

 

Hockey people often proclaim that the single biggest draw of the NHL is that live hockey, in their estimation, is an unmatched experience in the American pro sports landscape. To some degree, I agree with them. The Sharks games I have attended had a more energetic, vibrant and excited vibe than the average Warriors, Giants, or A’s game I have seen live. The NHL’s average attendance rose by about 2.5% from the last pre-lockout season to the recently concluded first post-strike year. This shows that hockey’s fan base, while small, is very loyal and loves hockey to the point of not caring how poorly it, the fan base, is treated by the league (this is similar to my experiences as a Warriors fan).

 

But there are still plenty of seats available at most arenas for the average game. In fact, the Nashville Predators, who purportedly had one of the best home ice advantages in the NHL, couldn’t sell out their playoff games despite fairly inexpensive ticket prices. The league should take some of those spare tickets and give them to school children, perhaps as part of an incentive program for academic achievement. Give each child two tickets, one of which must be used by an accompanying adult. Make sure the children (and their parents) don’t sell the tickets by clearly marking the tickets as being part of the free hockey tickets for school children initiative and alerting ushers about the program. This will generate good publicity for promoting scholastic achievement and get children and their parents to games, where they can bond, make memories, and soak in the experience of live hockey. They can then hang out after the game and take advantage of the mandatory player autograph sessions, allowing the kids to get to know a new favorite athlete to follow. Jersey and poster sales are sure to follow. Some of the children will talk their parents into coming back for more games, and even if they don’t, the teams will still make money off the parking and concessions from the one game that the children and their parents attend.

 

While live hockey may be the league’s best product, there is no excuse for letting televised hockey become the Ford Pinto of televised sports. OLN is hurting hockey. When ESPN realized it could get better ratings showing poker reruns than real time hockey, the NHL was left scrambling (Gary Bettman unprepared and without a good plan, what a surprise). The NHL found little interest for its product and ended up signing with the Outdoor Life Network (I wonder what plan B was? Using handheld camcorders to record games and then selling them on the Home Shopping Network?). OLN signed up because they wanted to use the NHL to get more awareness of their network. The NHL managed to partner with an entity that has an even lower Q rating than the NHL does, doing nothing for promoting hockey. The NHL then allowed OLN to televise games with atrocious production value. There are dorm room web-casts that feature better camera work and commentary than the NHL on OLN. I understand OLN not having much hockey televising expertise, but there is no excuse for the NHL to sit idly by and allow the product it broadcasts to the country to be so poorly packaged. If OLN doesn’t know how to properly produce a hockey game, the NHL should step in and teach them. The NHL has had games telecast for decades, and there should be people in the league well-versed in how to run a quality hockey broadcast. The league is simply making a bad situation much worse by allowing their product, already on a channel no one knows about, to become unwatchable because of shoddy camera work and other production flaws. But eventually the NHL needs to either help drastically grow OLN, or if raising production value is simply slapping lipstick on a pig then they need to move to a better network even if they lose money in the short run. 

 

Another problem plaguing the league is its total failure in marketing its players. The NHL’s stars are anonymous to the general public, sports fans, and even most people in their teams’ home towns. This year’s Sharks featured the league’s leading goal scorer, Jonathan Cheechoo, and the league’s leader in points, Joe Thornton. Yet both are not likely to be recognized by the average denizen of San Jose. A few years ago there was a large group of Sharks who would visit cafes and other establishments in various suburbs of San Jose to play chess with whoever happened to be there. The players usually managed to go unrecognized. Contrast this with star players on other teams. Green Bay is a one team town like San Jose. Would Brett Favre ever go unnoticed walking the streets? For that matter, would Brett Favre go unnoticed walking the streets of San Jose? He’d certainly be recognized more than Cheechoo or Thornton, even if you subtract the recognition he gets from his seemingly unending string of press conferences to announce that he has nothing to announce regarding his potential retirement. The anonymity that most of the NHL’s top players experience today simply wouldn’t be allowed to happen in most other major sports leagues. It wouldn’t even happen in NASCAR, boxing, USA Track and Field, the WTA, poker, or the WNBA (and the WNBA receiving more network television airtime than the NHL is a major indictment of the NHL’s leadership, a pox on Commissioner Gary Bettman’s house).

 

I like hockey and at least peripherally follow the NHL every year (and usually watch at least 15 or 20 playoff games). I have absolutely no interest in NASCAR and have never watched a single race. The fact that I can name more top twenty NASCAR drivers than top twenty NHL scorers speaks volumes about the utter incompetence of the NHL’s current marketing efforts. Ask the average American sports fan to name some NHL players and I suspect the top names will be Gretzky, Messier, and maybe a player or two from the 1980 Olympic team. The common thread here is that they’re all retired. The NHL has done nothing to make the average person or even the average sports fan get to know its stars.

 

The NHL should advertise its players in ways that allow fans to both see the players’ superhuman skills and also get to know a little bit about them as people. The current ads on display during the playoffs are terrible. They show a player in full uniform (except helmet) with a serious look on his face doing basically nothing (at most a player in the ads will lift a goal a few feet off the ground). The player’s name appears on the screen. Great. Why would that make me care about him? Show me some jaw-dropping plays he’s made. Show me some obstacles he’s had to overcome in life that might make me connect with him as a person and want to root for him. Show me the player using his hockey skills in a funny way in real life. In short, give me a reason to care and to remember who he is. Don’t show me a bunch of androids in uniforms.

 

In fact, the NHL should make a point of humanizing its players. Middle class America probably has more in common with the average hockey player than it does with the average basketball, baseball, or football player. I’m sure quite a few of the NHL’s players have interesting life stories, and surely some have very colorful personalities. Let the public see all of this. The television networks covering the Olympics do a fantastic job of getting the public to care about athletes they have never heard of who participate in sports they don’t care about. They do this by sharing life stories and letting the public connect with the athletes, giving the public a reason to really root for their new heroes. Why can’t the NHL tell us about what their players had to overcome to get to where they are?

 

Additionally, many athletes have gained notoriety simply by letting their personalities shine through in their performances. NFL wide receivers like Chad Johnson have become household names via their use of creative touchdown celebrations. Some baseball players are well known for how they begin their home run trot (Sosa’s jump, McGwire flipping his bat like a toothpick, Bonds pausing to admire his work). In other countries some soccer players are known for their creative goal celebrations (one of my lasting memories of the 1994 World Cup is a Brazilian player named Bebeto celebrating his goals by rocking an imaginary baby in his arms, a celebration he picked because he had become a father shortly before the World Cup). Contrast this with NHL players who seem to all celebrate goals in the same way, by waiting for their teammates to arrive for a group hug. It’s a nice celebration, but doesn’t show anything about the individual. The celebration doesn’t have to be a one man thing. The St. Louis Rams celebrated touchdowns by having every member of the offense race to the end zone, encircle the ball, and do some kind of arm weave dance around it. NHL goal scorers need to develop signature goal celebrations and repeat them as often as possible.

 

The final addition to the league, one relating to showing character and decreasing the perception of android hockey players, is an injection of villains and controversy. The American media eats this stuff up. The Phil Jackson, Shaq, Kobe Bryant triangle and the subsequent Bryant rape accusation seemed to lead Sportscenter night after night. Some, myself included, got sick of it, but ratings for games were high and Dallas Mavericks owner Marc Cuban publicly stated that he thought the Bryant situation was a boon for the league. Last year Terrell Owens threw a season-long hissy fit and in the process had more broadcasts of him working out than anyone in America outside of Richard Simmons,  Susanne Summers, Chuck Norris, and “fitness celebrity” (whatever that means) John Basedow. While Owens’ repeated public verbal skewering of his then Philadelphia Eagles teammates and one-man infomercial for sit-ups routine may have seemed like a black eye for the NFL, it’s very likely that the ratings for next year’s Eagles – Cowboys (his new employers) match-ups will be through the roof. Plus the NFL got months of free publicity out of it.

 

The NHL is in desperate need of villains. Vince McMahon made a billion dollar business out of sports theater centered around the good guy versus bad guy theme. Hockey diehards will get entire arenas taunting an opposing player given the slightest provocation. Hockey needs a few talented players to become public malcontents. Play a little dirty, say some things that aren’t politically correct garbage, show a little poor sportsmanship, and get a little blood flowing on the ice. In the mid 1990s, the NHL had Claude Lemieux at the center of the Detroit Red Wings – Colorado Avalanche rivalry. Lemieux, the Robert Horry of hockey in terms of regular season and post season production, sparked that rivalry and kept it going by a combination of dirty hits, timely goals, fights, and refusing to shake hands after losing a series. At its peak, the rivalry featured high stakes playoff games, goalie fights, and a game with about 200 minutes in penalties. Lemieux and the two teams were frequently mentioned in the sports media and the public was very aware of the main participants in the rivalry. But since then there has been nothing (with the exception of Todd Bertuzzi breaking Steve Moore’s neck, but Bertuzzi was very apologetic and has been a shell of his former self since the incident). The public needs someone to hate, someone to rally against. The player needs to be good enough to respect his talent, but heinous enough to jeer despite it. Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens, and Kobe Bryant are the quintessential sports villains. There are off course good guys that counter the villains and are the ones fans cheer for (currently Albert Pujols, Tom Brady, and LeBron James). The NHL needs a couple of its better players to step up, be big jerks in very public ways, be unapologetic about it, and spark some public hate so that the sports public will reawaken to hockey and the NHL and find that its faster paced, higher scoring, more talented, and more fun than it has been in years.

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