The NHL’s Growth Problem (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Non-Traditional Market Pt 1)

As I’ve mentioned before, I come from a marketing background. It’s what gave me a basis for all my analytical work, and why I find the “business” side of hockey just as appealing as the “play” side of hockey – I’ve always been curious about how and why people spend their money.

A lot of people think marketing is just putting together advertising campaigns like in Mad Men, and while ads are certainly an important part of what marketers do, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Think of marketing like this – psychology, but for profit.

Through marketing operations, companies are attempting to create an emotional connection with their audience in order to influence the purchasing patterns and pricing thresholds of that audience.

This is what brings me to the NHL and how it differs from most of the professional sports leagues in the USA. I say USA a) because Canada’s markets are much smaller for the ‘Big 4’ (one MLB team, one NBA team, CFL instead of NFL) and b) hockey is “their” game, so the marketing for it is going to be different and omnipresent.

Why does that matter in the context of this series? Well, Canada has 7 of the 30 NHL teams, but not even half the population of the United States. Given that these articles are focusing on how to grow the game, looking at a saturated market like Canada isn’t going to help much. When you already have ~90% awareness* amongst your target audience, adding more marketing dollars to convert and retain fans brings slim returns on investment (ROI), and therefore I will be focusing specifically on the USA in this series (though many points are relevant across the border too).

I am going to break this series out into three parts I wish the NHL would specifically address in their grand scheme to “Grow the Game.”

Part 1: Humility Culture, Player Branding, and Getting ‘Em While They’re Young
Part 2: Marketing to Women Isn’t About Political Correctness, It’s About Making Money
Part 3: Speaking French is Romantic, but Speaking Spanish is Lucrative

Part 1: Humility Culture, Player Branding, and Getting ‘Em While They’re Young

Before the Blackhawks took on the Tampa Bay Lightning for their 3rd Stanley Cup in 6 years, the New York Times published an article about how they managed to pull off such a massive rebranding of what used to be the worst team in the NHL.

It’s a fascinating read, but my favorite quote from it is this:

Master, the Nielsen senior vice president, added, “The formula is they have a core of young, good-looking guys that has been together on the same team that has won a lot.”

Now, marketing can’t do much about the “wins a lot” part of that formula, but look at the other traits called out – “young” and “good looking”. In fact, Nielsen has an actual rating for “marketability”, with a ranking that includes putting a number to handsomeness. Unsurprising to our readers, Patrick Sharp leads the NHL with a handsomness score of 28.

Why is that important? Well, the NHL has a habit of focusing on team and game play in most of their marketing events, aside from the All Star Game. If you look at the NBCSN promos during the season, especially for Rivalry Night, it’s always the same – WATCH THE BRUINS TAKE ON THEIR BITTER RIVALS, THE ARIZONA COYOTES – regardless of actual storyline between the two teams.

On a league level, it’s a lot harder to pick out individual storylines to keep fans invested, but somehow it’s managed during the playoffs (when did Tyler Johnson get drafted? Anyone? Anyone?). But for teams, it’s absolutely necessary to encourage players to be themselves.

First, this is a good practice simply on a human level. When a person, regardless of job, feels the need to fit into a certain personality profile to be successful, it can damage their confidence and self-esteem, which in turn makes them less productive or worse, self-destructive. Recently, Rich Clune penned a moving piece for the Player’s Tribune about his struggles with addiction, stemming in large part from a fear of not fitting in, especially in juniors.

“Because I was terrified. Because I lived in a constant state of fear. It starts when you’re young and dumb. I left home when I was 16 years old to go play in the OHL. When I got there, I was on a team with guys who were two and three years older than me. They had beards. These guys were men.”

Second, diversity allows more people (in this case, more fans) to identify with players, thereby creating an emotional connection with them. This is especially true of children.

There are a couple of players who are known for big personalities – PK Subban, Alex Ovechkin, Jaromir Jagr, and of course, Mr. Universe, Ilya Bryzgalov. While I admit to cherry picking these examples, they all have something in common – each has been criticized for not conforming to the Humble Hockey Player standard by the mainstream media. And what’s worse is that their teams leave them hanging out to dry by not acting like personality is an asset.

I don’t know how the Humble Hockey Player media narrative got started, and frankly, I don’t really care. But it’s harmful to the business of hockey, and if teams want to make money, they need to stand up to the media and take control of that narrative. PK Subban isn’t a “showboat,” he’s enthusiastic and full of joie de vivre**.

Alex Ovechkin isn’t the arrogant rival sent to destroy Sidney Crosby, he’s a goalscorer, the likes of which we haven’t seen matched this decade, with a big laugh and a bigger heart.

And when it comes to the universe being “Humongous Big,” Bryz is right. It’s friggin’ giant. Instead of making fun of his accent and word choice, get Bryzgalov on a camera with a famous astronomer and let him ask questions about what makes the universe tick!

Hockey has grown as a white, Canadian sport and with that comes certain cultural expectations from the mainstream media, where the loudest voices are also white and Canadian. When these expectations are challenged, there is always going to be backlash. It is up to the teams these players represent to embrace these differences and preemptively work towards convincing fans that this is good.

When the Blackhawks entered their rebuild, they knew it would take more than just winning to get the city bought into professional hockey again. Thanks to the advent of social media, it was easier than ever to spread their message – one crafted around the players. They took Patrick Kane, wild child, and turned him into a precocious youth. They took Jonathan “Dead Eyes” Toews and turned him into Captain Serious. And they took Patrick Sharp, most marketable player in the NHL, and gave him a camera.

And it worked. Even though their first year got off to a rocky start, the legend of Kane & Toews spread, and with the 2010 cup win, kept spreading. They didn’t abandon the plan. As the cast changed, they embraced new players – Andrew Shaw is a fan favorite, and not just because he tries to head the puck in the net, but because the Hawks team doesn’t shy away from letting the world see just how annoying he really is. These days, he’s not just a hockey player, he’s the little brother of the entire Blackhawks fanbase.

This methodology is slowly spreading, as you’re seeing more and more videos of players being silly on the internet, but there are teams who need to build a fanbase (and fast) like the Arizona Coyotes & Florida Panthers who could do so much more.

I’ve talked about Max Domi before, but seriously, his narrative is marketing gold. It needs to be out there as much as possible, with Max doing youth outreach as a Type 1 Diabetic. Get his dog a twitter account. Max Domi’s dog as team mascot – there are so many ways to go. Aaron Ekblad, as bitter as I may be about his Calder win, is another huge asset if harnessed properly. He’s young, good looking, and likes to bake. Why don’t we have a Florida Panthers “Baking with Ekblad” segment yet?

Some players are building a personal brand without much help from their teams, like Erik Karlsson. He was the first NHL player to get a Tumblr, and is a blueprint on interacting with the largely female fanbase that can be found there. He answers questions, posts content (usually his favorite music, or of course, selfies), and does it all with an air of deference – he knows Tumblr is a fan created community and he’s the one intruding. Without that Tumblr, I would mostly be finding fairly cut and dry captain-ly segments on the Senators’ website (with the exception of one interview where he sasses an actual Senator).

And the NHL itself is starting to come around, asking PK Subban to do red carpet interviews last year and this year to host the post-trophy segments of the NHL Awards. Thankfully, PK accepted and treated us not only to his wit, but three different costume changes.

Why is this important?

Because sports marketing is what’s called “aspirational marketing.” People don’t want to just see these players, they want to be these players. And a shy kid on their peewee hockey team will probably never grow up to be a loudmouthed nudist like Tyler Seguin***, but giving them someone like quiet, camera-shy Jamie Benn to worship means the Dallas Stars will have a fan for life.

And that translates into Money, with a capital M.

According to the NHL Fan Cost Index put out in 2014 by Team Marketing Report, the average family would spend $363 per NHL game attended (read the fine print for how this was determined). Now imagine that family goes once a year for 10 years. Now twice a year. Imagine they go for twenty years. That’s $14,500 from one child having a hero. And that doesn’t include jerseys, or special events, or season tickets or Game Center Live subscriptions. That’s just 4 average price tickets, some food & drink, and small merchandise purchases.

It costs a lot more to grow a fanbase than to keep one engaged, but growth is exactly what’s needed right now. Teams are going to have to start shelling out the cash on building these player brands to engage new fans, because the old fans? Well, they’ve already given their money to the cause.

* No, I don’t know the actual awareness number, but I haven’t yet met a Canadian who can’t name a couple of professional hockey players.
** Why yes, I did use a French phrase because he plays for the Canadiens, thanks for noticing.
*** Said with love.


29 thoughts on “The NHL’s Growth Problem (How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Non-Traditional Market Pt 1)

  1. When I read your article, it put me immediately in mind of a piece from last year about the players attending NYC’s media day. (Article: )

    Notably this part: “The concept [of media day] was so well received that the NHL realized it had hit upon a good thing. There was a time when the league was criticized for not using its best and most marketable assets – those attractive, mostly squeaky-clean players – to promote the game. Not any more. In year two of the PMT, they expanded the roster to about dozen players and added a few extra media outlets. The event has grown exponentially ever since.”

    I think the league is very aware that they could be doing more to promote their assets, but not every team has a group the caliber of Blackhawks TV to manage this promotion correctly on whatever budget they have.

    Also, access to players depends a lot upon each team’s owner and power structure. I’ve heard from an unnamed media source in an unnamed team that because the team’s owner gave all of the control over access to the players to the GM, the in-house media team doesn’t therefore have much access at all to the players — sometimes an organization’s internal politics are an impediment to marketing success.

    I’ve long pondered the release of cutesy videos about players… Montreal does this well. But even better are the Minnesota Wild, who do “Becoming Wild” segments that highlight the player in their home town, training to ‘become wild,’ and what they do with their off time. All of these things help build not just a tiny slice of narrative (as in the cutesy videos), but the larger story that you point to here about showing a player’s growth arc.

    Oh — the Penguins’ In the Room does a wonderful job of building a greater narrative for an entire team, too. (I just noticed that you haven’t referenced it, but it definitely helps market the story arcs of entire teams — as do the 24/7 or Road to the Whatever episodes.)

    Anyway, your article points to the need for more of all of this. The biggest problem for each team’s media department is how to convince the team that it’s necessary.

    Liked by 10 people

  2. Ooh, I don’t think I’ve read that article! Thanks for the link.

    Your point about internal politics is so dead on – there’s a pretty good divide between teams that are embracing the new school of marketing, and some of the others that think social media is still “free” (it’s not, it’s so so not). But yeah, if the GM isn’t bought into marketing as a necessary component of success, they’re not going to let the players get “distracted” by it.

    Team narratives are really fun (I loved 24/7) but I don’t think they’re going to pull in new fans the way a 1-on-1 connection to a single player can. They’re better advertising for the league as a whole, in my opinion. That said, I kind of need to rewatch Road to the Winter Classic since it’s on Netflix now.

    Liked by 9 people

  3. $363 on a single game? Holy shit. Well, I’ve never been to Canada, but I have heard that hockey is your big sport up there.

    I don’t really know anything about hockey, in fact; I’ve only been to a single game where the Washington Capitals got badly whipped. But I’m surprised that being humble is apparently considered a good thing in some professional sports. We don’t exactly like our pro athletes down here to be jerks, but plenty of the most popular and successful sports stars are extremely non-humble, or even full of themselves. (Or full of joie de vivre, as you put it – that sounds a lot more positive.)

    Liked by 6 people

    • Well it’s $363 for 4 people, or about $90 a person, which is pretty fair when you consider tickets food, drink and merchandise. And yeah, honestly those athletes have much better brand recognition than most hockey players, probably because they’re not afraid to market themselves.

      Liked by 5 people

      • There was a Globe and Mail article on the South Asian-Canadian community, as another “market” that have keen hockey fans. I’m reminded of the Tim Horton’s commercial a few years’s still on Youtube of an Asian-Canadian father remembering his hockey youth years as he sits with his aging father while they both watch grandson play hockey. Again, it’s wonderful soft marketing of donuts..and hockey/sport + Canadian “traditions”. 🙂 In Metro Toronto there are amateur hockey leagues where some teams are dominated by non-whites. I think of my teen nephews and niece who all have been playing ice hockey for last few years. And soccer. (Same for the girl also.)

        Liked by 5 people

  4. If you have a link to that article I’d love to read it! I’m focusing mostly on the US markets because of Canadian market saturation, but clearly there’s a lot of room for improvement there, as well.

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Your point about internal politics is so dead on – there’s a pretty good divide between teams that are embracing the new school of marketing, and some of the others that think social media is still “free” (it’s not, it’s so so not). But yeah, if the GM isn’t bought into marketing as a necessary component of success, they’re not going to let the players get “distracted

    Liked by 4 people

  6. im from New Zealand and have never watched a game of hockey in my life, but still found your article informative and on the money.
    In NZ rugby is our hockey, and we have a few narratives with our All Blacks (National heros) We’ve got captain fantastic, the underwear model, and the monotone coach. Interesting stuff thanks for the post 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • I’m glad you found it interesting! I know the bare minimum about rugby – and all of my knowledge comes from romance novels, lol!

      If you’re interested in hockey, there actually is a professional league in Australia, so you might be able to catch a game on TV at a “normal” time of day 🙂

      Liked by 3 people

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