Line Change: NHL Refreshes Marketing Efforts via Events and Partnerships

Molly Soat
Marketing News Exclusives
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Key Takeaways
  • ​​The National Hockey League is gaining traction in viewership and marketing efforts.
  • According to the NHL, revenue has increased every year since 2005, save for the 2012-2013 season, which was shortened due to a lockout.
  • The popularity of the Winter Classic, an outdoor hockey game played in a different football or baseball stadium each year, prompted the league to add more outdoor games to the schedule.

While still placing a distant fourth among the U.S. pro sports industry’s “Big Four,” the New York-based National Hockey League is gaining traction in both its viewership and its marketing efforts, thanks, in large part, to a strategy that plays up pillar events such as the Winter Classic.

According to the NHL, revenue has increased every year since 2005, save for the 2012-2013 season, which was shortened due to a lockout. That growth has resulted from changes to the game to make it more fast-paced in an effort to attract new fans; a revamped social media strategy and a new approach to on-site game coverage that better connect fans to the league, in general, rather than to just their favorite teams; and the addition of pillar events to the annual hockey calendar, say Brian Jennings, the NHL’s executive vice president and CMO, and Keith Wachtel, executive vice president of global partnerships.

The Winter Classic, an outdoor hockey game played in a different football or baseball stadium each year, began in 2008 and has become an annual event. Moreover, its popularity prompted the league to add more outdoor games to the schedule, including six this season.

These outdoor events regularly attract more viewers than most regular-season NHL games, according to Nielsen, which means that corporate partners get more eyeballs on their brands. The league also offers those brands more exposure via new partner activation efforts, Wachtel says. For example, McDonald’s McCafé provided samples of its coffee and hot chocolate at outdoor games.

“The traditional intellectual property model of handing a logo to a partner and having them put that on a package or throw [it] in a commercial and the rest is up to them, those days are over,” Wachtel says. “There is so much scrutiny on sponsorships, the return on investment and return on objectives. These tangible assets are helping drive partnerships.”

The NHL is offering sponsors more than a place at the snack stand. According to Wachtel, sponsors are integrated into not only experiential marketing events like the Winter Classic, but also on-air game coverage, online properties and fan-centric digital assets. “What we do now is comingle the message that the NHL is a great brand, something that you should be proud to associate with, and that it can also really elevate your company in a tangible way," he says. "The old model was one size fits all, and now you have to customize and cater. Whether it’s events or media, or working with our broadcasters, those are the things sponsors are looking for and you have to make it easier for them. When partners are part of these events, they’re activating against them, so they’re also building our brand. Everything is really pivoting off of the events platform.”

With new partnerships with brands such as Discover, Honda, Geico, Verizon and Visa developed over the past few years, the NHL’s new activation model appears to be succeeding, Jennings says. “When you look at what partners are expecting today, they want the opportunity to get in and sample and showcase their product or service in these unique experiences. Over the course of a regular 82-game season, we have these little adrenaline shots throughout the year, which helps our brand—and their brand—stand up and be noticed.”

 


Author Bio:

Molly Soat
Molly Soat is a staff writer for Marketing News and Marketing News Exclusives. E-mail her at msoat@ama.org.
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