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|NHL Marketing 101
By Patryk Fournier
July 25th, 2005
The suggestion that the NHL needs to do a better of job of marketing their players has been offered by just about everyone in the past few weeks. Those in the media have been stressing that the league needs to find creative means to market their stars or risk further slippage on the major sports scale. The only problem is that outside of perhaps SI's Michael Farber and his "everyday player" idea I haven't heard a single creative idea about how the NHL should accomplish this marketing feat. Sidney Crosby will be counted on to address a lot of the NHL's marketing challenges. Those who doubt Crosby will make a major impact playing in Pittsburgh obviously suffer from short term memory lapse - last year's NFL rookie of the year Ben Roethlisberger had the top-selling jersey in the league while playing in Pittsburgh. The great Michelangelo once said "criticize by creating"; on that note allow me to grab my brush and paint how I would market the NHL's stars.
One of the best ways to gauge the successful marketing of a player is through individual jersey sales. Unfortunately the NHL doesn't publicly release team-by-team or individual jersey sales but if you follow the example of the NBA you can at least understand that there is a direct relationship with team merchandise sales and road attendance and a further connection with individual stars.
The Heat, Lakers, Cavaliers, Rockets, and 76ers were the top drawing road acts in the NBA's past regular season. All 5 clubs were also amongst the top-10 best selling jersey sales. The presence of major stars on each of these clubs was largely responsible for their ranking. Shaq, T-Mac and LeBron ranked 1, 2 and 3 in individual jersey sales this past season with Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade trailing not fair behind.
Let's bring this back to the NHL.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, as miserable as they have been on the ice over the past few seasons, have still been a top-10 draw when Mario is in the lineup. It may be surprising but team success doesn't necessarily translate into successful road attendance. For instance the Ottawa Senators have been one of the NHL's premier clubs over the last few years yet they ranked second worst last season as a draw on the road. They're a terrific team and their stars are known regionally but outside of their fan base people would be hard pressed to name a star on the Sens.
The key thing to take away from this correlation with the NBA is that having recognizable and bankable stars on your team leads to increased revenue. Under this new CBA revenues are now linked with salaries so suddenly it becomes in the player's interest to want to grow team and league revenues because only then will individual player salaries increase.
Ideas to market players:
Build a frame of reference: Canadians on the whole are already quite aware of many of the league's top stars but ask Americans to name the NHL's elite and its like asking someone to pick out Suriname on a map. Sidney Crosby is the league's new prize jewel and barring a complete meltdown his on-the-ice performance is not in doubt, but his marketing outside of the arenas needs to be handled carefully. Already Crosby has been branded by the US media as the "LeBron James of Hockey". Hockey needs to embrace this reference and run with it: co-brand with other leagues' superstars. Comparing Crosby to someone of LeBron's great success both on and off the court is terrific for the sport. The idea wouldn't be as far fetched as LeBron and Crosby already share a common sponsorship with Gatorade (although Crosby's deal is only in the Canadian marketplace for now). Why not build a Gatorade ad campaign with LeBron and Sidney and dub them as "The Phenoms"?
This frame of reference concept would also do wonders for Nike Hockey pitchman Jarome Iginla if he were to be paired up with Swoosh marketing icon Tiger Woods. I don't want to solely play the race card here because Iginla and Woods' talents alone are able to distinguish without a reference to the colour of their skin needed. The reason I mention the parallel of race is that both Woods and Iginla have broken through as legitimate superstars in sports leagues that are heavily lacking in minorities. Woods has already opened up the game of golf to those that the game was never marketed to. Just imagine if Iginla was given the same spotlight and the effect he could have in drawing new fans and players to the game.
Mainstream appeal: As silly and contrite as it may seem the NFLPA's annual appearance on Wheel of Fortune NFL Players Week is the exact thing hockey needs to strive for. Heck it's hard to discount any idea the NFL embraces. The NFLPA has been participating on Wheel of Fortune for the past 10 years. Before you discount the power of this appearance for the NFL consider that Wheel Fortune is the #1 program in the history of syndicated television, it draws 16 million viewers each evening in the U.S. and 100 million weekly viewers worldwide. It's not like I'm suggesting hockey players go on Jeopardy or anything…if they did we'd need to call Will Ferrell to host.
PR & Marketing 101: Eliminate clichés and boring personalities! For those who watched or should I say endured CBC's 'Making the Cut' reality series you will have already learned that hockey players are some of the most bland and predictable athletes out there. Pete Sampras and Tim Duncan look like Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley next to these guys. The NHLPA needs to offer a solid marketing & public relations course aiding the players in simple things such as interviews and providing them the tools to expand their business opportunities off the ice.
Corporate champions: The league needs to continue to foster relationships with big companies like Nike. Nike Hockey's latest 45 second campaign (the average length of a hockey shift) with Markus Naslund firing pucks at Jarome Iginla on the streets is a terrific commercial and marks another great campaign on the heels of last year's Kovalchuk-Naslund ad from Nike. Competition is one surefire way to build interest and creativity among corporate champions and who better to run head-to-head campaigns against Nike than Reebok. Reebok has built an impressive list of endorsers that includes Crosby, Luongo, Pronger, Modano, Datsyuk and Malkin to name just a few.
Fly in the face of stereotypes: The NHL is perceived as more and more of an international game with the boon of European players joining the league. Rather than diminish the impact Europeans have on the league why not embrace and make light of stereotypes that dog European players like the language barrier, soft play and inability to show up in the playoffs in a series of fun ads.
For instance you can show Peter Forsberg giving a testimonial of how much of a soft player he is and the amount of ribbing he took from his North American teammates for asking for anesthetic before getting his spleen removed. Or show Nicklas Lidstrom talking candidly about his inability to show up in the playoffs. "If you think about it, I could have done much better than three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smyth Trophy."
Fab 5 of hockey: In marketing the new league the NHL needs to guard against over watering and saturating the market with too many new stars being built up. For the time being the league's focus should be on building a Fab 5 list of bankable stars: Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla, Ilya Kovalchuk, Rick Nash and Martin Brodeur. With the exception of Brodeur these guys are all gifted offensive players under 30 who should flourish in the league's obstruction-free offensive style of game for many years. Brodeur is on this list because he's someone who far and away is the best at his position and his chase of Patrick Roy's records will draw fan interest.
Great American hope: Unfortunately this next marketing step cannot be taken until the NHL's next phenom arrives in 2006-2007 and injects some sorely needed life in the USA Hockey program. If Phil Kessel can play near as well as he did in the Under-18 championships the NHL will have their new face of US Hockey. With players like Modano, Tkachuk, Hull, Amonte and Leetch all on the south side of their careers Kessel is exactly the type of player that the league needs to reenergize a whole new generation of fans.
There you have it; just some of the ideas the NHL may want to consider when the topic of marketing their players comes up.