9 min read

Pivot #7 Hockey Marketing State of the Union

Pivot #7 Hockey Marketing State of the Union
This isn't clickbait

This week's newsletter takes a different form. It's a single-topic analysis of the NHL and sports marketing. I continue to brainstorm, iterate, and trial different formats to communicate the ideas Pivot endeavors to share.

32 Thoughts: The Podcast with Jeff Marek and Elliott Friedman is a staple in my podcast line-up. Every Monday and Friday I’m usually tuning in to get my Insider fix. Earlier this month (on the December 1st episode), the guys interviewed Dan Near, the newly appointed commissioner of the Western Hockey League and former Adidas hockey executive. 

Specifically, there’s a 3.5 minute segment of the interview, where Near acutely describes the state of sports marketing and how hockey fits into the landscape. If my IT intern set this up correctly, the embedded YouTube should begin at the start of the segment I am referring to.

Segment 1:20:12-1:23:52

Paraphrase of the Q&A:

Elliotte Friedman: How do you think advertisers perceive hockey?

Dan Near:

  • The level of competitiveness in sports marketing is escalating. Examples: National women’s soccer leagues, PWHL, Nebraska and NCAA Women’s volleyball
  • Creates much higher standard you need to meet to bring advertisers into business
  • Most critical part of being viable entity for advertisers is showing loyalty and connectivity to the consumer to the point that you can generate transactions for your client; i.e. need to generate cell phone purchases for telecom sponsor
  • NHL and hockey consumer’s propensity to consumer operates in consistent way with high degrees of loyalty
  • The notion of “playing for the crest on the front and not the name on the back” - fans think of that in an interesting way too. Being a hockey fan makes you a member of unique community, especially in the U.S. because being a die hard fan is more rare 
  • By virtue of being part of the community fans want to be associated with brands and partners that are active in hockey and treat themselves as hockey brands
  • Continue to interact with consumers in super authentic way
  • Cites Adidas Ultra Boost shoes in NHL as evidence (despite Adidas breaking  business relationship with NHL due to Covid)

Before diving in, checkout this Nebraska Women's Volleyball clip. The Chicago Bulls of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Husker Women's Volleyball set three records this season: 1) Largest crowd for a women’s sporting event ever: 92,003. 2) Largest home season total: 255,953. 3) Largest indoor NCAA volleyball game (twice): 19,598 and 19,727. Talk about sports marketing becoming more competitive. What brand wouldn't want to be affiliated with that?

The phrase “grow the game” is often thrown around, eliciting images of Evgeni Malkin speaking broken English to a child at Learn-To-Play as he hands the kid his first hockey stick or the Commissioner's office drawing on a white board how to host the next outdoor game in Bangkok. All noble intentions. But “grow the game” should really translate to "attract more dollars to hockey". It’s that simple. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending how you look at it, more money solves a lot of problems. From a top of the pyramid point of view, capital primarily flows into the NHL through Hockey Related Revenue (HRR)--corporate sponsors, ticket sales, merchandise, concessions, etc. The precursor for more HRR is more eyeballs and the precursor for more eyeballs is compelling content.

A healthy NHL means a healthy sport at the grassroots level. If NHL players and the league are making money, more capital flows to youth programs, community rinks, etc. I'm all for grassroots endeavors, but real macro impact on the game occurs when there's significant supportive capital, and the best way to make that happen is starting at the top.

The League for the most part has relied on game play to drive eyeballs–great matchups, highlight reel goals, big hits, upsets, etc. That’s good, but increasingly becoming not good enough as the sports marketing landscape becomes more competitive, as Dan Near described. I challenge players to switch their perspective. Players and their representatives should view themselves as equity owners in the league, afterall, players are entitled to 50% of HRR, which is directly tied to the salary cap and player contracts. Take responsibility for growing the HRR pie and rely less on the league office and owners to execute. Stop complaining about Covid and the cap not increasing and get on the offensive. Because if you're not on offense, you're losing ground to all the other sports that want the same revenue dollars.

The simplest way for players to take responsibility is to be interesting. Professional athlete life, training, lifestyle, business, investments, philanthropy, family, hobbies, whatever the interesting aspects of your life include, figure out creative, authentic ways to offer sneak peeks for fans. Players need to shift their fan associated identity from hockey player to athlete to fascinating person. Instead of Connor McDavid the hockey player, we need more Connor McDavid the person. The more players can craft their personal brands in color rather than black and white, equates to more fans, increased fan loyalty, and ultimately better ROI for affiliated brands and sponsorships. People love people of interest. We need more of them in the sport.

In hockey, Paul Bissonnette is the best example of this. What started out as raucous Twitter account morphed into creative ventures, podcasting, sports broadcasting, and now becoming one of the biggest stars in the sport. Biz is uniquely himself and the authenticity resonates with fans. I’m not calling for people to be like Biz, but understand the overall playbook. Offer glimpses of authenticity off-the-ice for fans to build admiration. There’s no reason for anyone outside of Arizona Coyotes fans and the citizens of Welland, Ontario to care about Biz, a fourth-line converted forward, except for the fact, Biz bucked the trend and connected with fans. He drives eyeballs and I’m sure he has a line of sponsorship requests in his inbox. Imagine the eyeballs garnered if some of the sports greatest players sprinkled in a little of the Biz playbook. 

The shining example of sports marketing today are Jason and Travis Kelce. It’s actually insane what they’ve built when you step back and take inventory: a top podcast, Amazon documentary, magazine covers, and every commercial on television. Jason Kelce, specifically, is an interesting athlete to draw insights from. He’s a center offensive lineman, a position typically commanding minimal air time on broadcasts and generating little fan interest. I doubt the average NFL fan can name three starting centers. All of a sudden Jason Kelce is this narrative and character that people connect with. He’s the blue-collar, regular dude, family man, funny, bearded, dad bod guy, but also a super high-level, Super Bowl winning football player. The amalgamation of all these things combined with Jason pulling the curtain back a bit on his thoughts and life created a tsunami of interest and fan engagement. His wife is pretty much a celebrity, he’s a People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive nominee, and overall NFL super star, yet he nevers scores touchdowns. Jason and Travis are future business school marketing case studies waiting to be written. If only the NHL had highly-skilled, young, American superstar brothers that went to a blue-chip university…

I’m not going to dive into the Taylor Swift stuff too much, but she’s obviously kerosene on the NFL marketing fire. All of a sudden Chiefs games are must-watch for the 12-75 female demographic. Regardless if the entire thing is organic or orchestrated by Kelce/Swift, to the NFL’s credit, they’ve fully leaned into the opportunity, recognizing the global PR bonanza it’s provided. If I had to critique the NHL, it’s their inability to fully embrace pop culture in a captivating way. Case in Point: Tate McRae.

Hello Tate

Listen, I’m first to admit Tate is a little out of my purview. She’s not a regular on my news feed, but I do know she is a beckoning pop music super star. A phenom of the TikTok generation. 10+ million followers across social platforms. She sits on the glass at Calgary Flames games.

Imagine TSwift at the Saddle Dome lol

She’s besties with Olivia Rodrigo. SHE’S WEARING GOALIE PADS ON HER ALBUM COVER. How much more obvious can it be? I’m not saying William Nylander should date her, but let’s get her involved. Insert her in the line-up. Fully lean in. Especially with cord cutting persisting and young people decreasingly watching full televised sporting events, all the more reason to embrace the TikTok star. Young sports fans do not sit on the recliner, throw on NESN, and listen to Jack Edwards call a full Boston Bruins game. Instead they consume instant highlights across media platforms. Mixing hockey with cultural content further embeds interest among young viewers which leads to a flood of dollar signs. 

I totally understand the tradition, the code, the respect, that many associate with hockey. I get that the old school player or fan may not want the NHL to go full TMZ. However, if you truly want to “grow the game” and have more kids be able to pick-up their first hockey stick, you should want more capital flowing into the game. To reiterate Dan Near’s point, hockey fans are super loyal and predictable consumers. The players need to spearhead endeavors aimed at connecting with the consumer. The hockey consumer is eager to affiliate with brands that consider themselves part of the hockey family. Authenticity and creativity are the keys. Here’s a fun list I brainstormed in 20 minutes of various ideas to throw at the wall.

  • NHL on Netflix - the most obvious idea is to copycat the success of Netflix series Formula 1: Drive to Survive, Full Swing, and Quarterback. Formula 1 all of a sudden boasts a rabid American fan base off the back of the TV series. Races became cultural events with a ‘who’s who’ list of attendees. In Quarterback, Kirk Cousins completely flipped the narrative of his career because he told viewers his family shops at Sam’s Club and Kohl’s. I think some version of the old 24/7 series is coming to TNT soon, which is great, but we need more of this. Unfiltered looks behind the curtain on mainstream platforms.
  • NHL Summer Golf Tournament - I want to see Joe Pavelski, Clayton Keller, Matt Boldy, and Cam Fowler in a foursome, duking it out on the course. There’s so much cross-promotion opportunity given the opposite seasons of the sports and the natural overlap of fans. Look at The Match on TNT. Huge hit that continues to scale and iterate. Another idea is to take the best golfer from each team and play a 32 player tournament to crown the best NHL golfer. Or take the top two golfers from each NHL squad and play a ‘best ball’ tournament. So many ways to do it. The Celebrity Pro-Am in Lake Tahoe is another data point of the potential opportunity here. 
  • Cottage Country Tour - Think MTV cribs but visit players’ summer cabins / cottages / summer homes. Instant smash hit series on YouTube. Northern Minnesota, Muskoka, Kelowna, Michigan, Cape Cod. Show us the summer lifestyle. 
  • Summer Gym Series - Go visit and profile the best hockey training facilities and gyms. Partner with fitness and healthcare corporate logos. Show us the day in the life, show us the facilities, services provided, the type of training players are doing today. Also, who trains together in the summer? Who are the summer workout buddies but in-season division rivals?
  • NHL Jam Band - Who plays an instrument? There has to be some hidden NHL vocalists. Let’s see some guys play some covers. Maybe one of the sillier ideas, but there’s got to be something at the intersection of hockey and music. The Philadelphia Eagles O-Line have a Christmas record for charity and it’s been a huge hit.
  • NHL.edu - Dive into courses, classes, or business endeavors players are pursuing in the off-season. Is anyone building a cool business. Let's tell those stories.

To review, hockey fans are loyal, predictable consumers. NHL players (and their advocates, i.e. agents, reps, managers, etc.) need to take responsibility for attracting capital to hockey by being interesting. Fans want to affiliate with companies that embrace hockey. Provide interesting content/products/services for fans to consume. Shift from simply being a hockey player to being a person of interest, to attract new eyeballs to the sport. Players can maintain competing for the team logo on the front while promoting the name plates outside the rink. People love narratives and characters. Address the issue in an authentic, creative way that resonates with consumers.

Please CC Marty Walsh.

Happy Holidays! Please comment below, especially if you laughed while reading! Check us out on IG @pivot.hockey

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