Memorial Day comes and goes. Baseball abounds, the NBA playoffs are reaching a crescendo with maybe another Boston-LA battle. The Indy 500 is here. The French Open is feeding the tennis. The World Cup is just on the horizon. Yet hockey, with the NHL Finals in two major markets, Philly and Chicago, is still holding it's own and then some for the first time in well, years.
But why? Chance? Divine inspiration? Apathy towards the other sports by the casual fan? Some kind of strange subliminal act by people to hold on to all things cold in the face of global warming? Of course not. The NHL's success on all fronts ... sponsors, TV ratings, digital and social media and attendance ... is the result of lots of seeding and trying and even some good old fashioned luck. Here's a look at a perfect storm that hopefully one of the world's most exciting games can continue to ride back up the popularity chart for the casual fan in North America and around the world.
The brand work of the teams. If there is a batter brand resurrection story in the past ten years in sports and entertainment than the Chicago Blackhawks it will be hard to find. The team was in the dumper less than five years ago ... no local TV, bad players, no presence in the market, a barren building ... before new president John McDonough made the trip from the Cubs and Wrigley Field to resurrect the brand. Partnerships with the White Sox, new TV deals, great community relations initiatives, smart publicity gimmicks, the luring of the Winter Classic, and yes, a great turnaround of play, all fueled the Blackhawks rise back to the top of the recognition meter in Chicago. The tepid winter play of the Bulls didn't hurt, but the Blackhawks made the brand cool and exciting again, and set the stage to regenerate a hockey crazy area and bring fans back who had forgotten about the team, the brand and even the sport. The Flyers and their leadership have never lost brand position, but the dramatic way they made the playoffs and have battled through certainly hasn't hurt either. Their engagement with the only New York area team in the playoffs, the Devils, in round one kept NYC interested enough in hockey to pay attention, and the fortuitous timing of the HBO special "The Broad Streets Bullies" also played in their favor. Whereas the Blackhawks had to rebuild, the Flyers have been the model of consistency and messaging in Philly ... they are always engaged in the community and their loyalty, even in the toughest of years, outpaces many teams in their best, all of which helps the league. So with two major American markets engaged in the Stanley Cup battle, what else is needed?
Special Events for the Casual fan. While the issue as to whether participation in the Sochi Games in 2014 is still up in the air, the excitement of this past Olympics still created a positive halo effect for the sport, and for the casual viewer, that certainly had both a carryover and a recall when the playoffs started. The work to also build the Winter Classic into THE New Year's Day event, surpassing college football, has also elevated the level of interest at a time of year when many casual fans were just going through the motions of engagement with winter sports, either hockey of basketball. Those two high level platforms, and all the activation that went on around them, certainly had the ability to resonate when playoff excitement played out. Also on the event platform is the phenomenal job the league does with the branding of the Stanley Cup itself. There are few trophies in any area of sports and entertainment, except maybe the Oscar, that generate more excitement and buzz than the Stanley Cup and its annual road show. We are now seeing other leagues ... the MLB road show with their trophy, the Lombardi Trophy becoming more prominent for the NFL ... start to mirror what the NHL has done with the Cup as a tool of casual fan engagement.
The Kings of the digital trial. While many sports are still trying to figure out the digital space, the NHL saw opportunity and tried to embrace every potential platform that arose to get fans more engaged and involved, and give brands a chance to connect to the game on many new levels. The results? Unique visitors to NHL.com increased 32 percent over last season's record. April 2010 was NHL.com's biggest month of all time with 17.1 million UVs while page views at NHL Mobile™ increased 233 percent over last season. The NHL has grown its addressable audience on all third party platforms like Facebook and Twitter to also engage the casual fan, and has worked with teams to do the same in their local markets as well. "Our digital success highlights the attractiveness of our fans to advertisers. Our fans have a high propensity for technology and digital devices more than fans of the other major leagues -- and they have an insatiable appetite for content, particularly video," said COO John Collins. "We are uniquely positioned to provide our fans with large quantities of compelling digital content, and our growth is bearing that out." In short, if there was a way to engage fans away from the TV, the NHL has tried it, and the results have started to pay off.
Casual Interest has led to better TV numbers: The NHL is the first league to point to the fact that the Nielsen ratings only tell a small part of the story, but all the pieces already mentioned have led to increased numbers for VERSUS, NBC, and even without a Canadian team in the Finals on CBC, RDS and TSN, none of which certainly is a bad thing.
Even in smaller non-NHL markets where viewership at this time may be nil, numbers have gone up. Why?
"What it says is that the NHL brand is bigger than the 30 hockey markets we play in across North America. We set out three years ago on a strategy to activate more than 50 million hockey fans in North America. In the process, we learned three important things. First, hockey fans are as passionate about the NHL as any fans are of any sport. Second, more than half of NHL fans are geographically displaced from their favorite team, so they could not easily stay connected to their passion. And third, the League had a shallow product portfolio," Collins added. "Our strategy has been to seize these business opportunities. Big events like the NHL Winter Classic help us activate fan passion on a national scale. Digital products like NHL GameCenter Live (live streaming games) and NHL Ice Time (mobile) enable us to keep fans connected to their favorite teams, anytime, anywhere. In addition to those new products, a more robust media platform, which includes NHL.com and its world class video player, and the NHL Network, enable fans to spend more time, energy, effort and emotion with us."
...Which leads to more brand engagement, which leads to more promotion: All of this means more people are following, logged on watching and touching brand NHL than in years, and all that positive engagement leads to the biggest prize ... more sponsor interest, an attendance rise and media coverage. Bridgestone's extension of their Winter Classic sponsorship is the latest. "These elements all work together to demonstrate a large, global audience to Madison Avenue and to the rights holder and licensee marketplace," Collins added.
So what does all this mean for the long term? Will millions of people start wearing jerseys as a fashion statement, and will ratings start rivaling the Super Bowl? No. What it means is the NHL has taken the time to find ways to seed a fertile market and understood they needed to take care of the strong fan first, then move to the casual hockey fan and then finally find ways not just to connect, but to continually engage the average guy and girl on the street. Some of it is good fortune; some of it was smart business. It really doesn't matter which weighs more. What matters is Brand NHL is stronger because the leadership took the time to build where their fans are, and when the sun came out they had the right pieces in place to engage.
Hockey in June isn't such a bad thing after all, and more people are checking it out in more ways. The numbers don't lie.