The Stanley Cup playoff spots put the focus on creating a community of dedicated fans, similar to frenzied football fanatics who drive millions of dollars in merchandise and advertising sales through the National Football League. The ads begin airing on March 28, exclusively on NHL.com, and on March 30 on broadcast TV and other Web sites.
I spoke with the Vancouver Canucks' Roberto Luongo in the locker room before the photo shoot. The 29-year-old goalie was dressed in full gear and sat in front of cubbies with methodically hung helmets and uniforms.
"It's a good opportunity to get face and air time with fans because, especially as a goalie, you're mostly under a mask all the time," he told me, humbly. "All of us in the league are privileged to play the game and want to help promote the sport."
Words in the ad featuring Luongo demonstrate that commitment: "And you do whatever it takes to keep them believing. That's what a city can do for a goalie. And a goalie for a city. That's how the cup changes everything."
The spot took a mere 45 minutes to shoot, but several hours to plot, and set up and tear down equipment. I watched as several lights, flag stands and a camera were rolled out onto the half-inch-thick ice on the professional hockey rink. Some equipment required for shoots may not produce heat, but the weight continually puts pressure on the ice, which melts with each passing minute, Ken Rosen, group VP for video production and programming at NHL Productions, told me.
Rosen says the players also work on features and shows that run on the league's web site. "Playing hockey is a full-time job. They train to keep in shape and play 82 games per year, plus playoffs," Rosen said. "Players participate in ads for the game because they love the sport, not because someone twists their arm."
Marketing the sport by participating in commercials and public appearances won't help them win the game, but it does foster community among the league, players and fans. Designed by ad agency Young + Rubicam, about nine ads, including the one featuring Luongo, are scheduled to run through the playoffs on NBC and Versus networks in the United States; and on CBC, TSN and RDS in Canada.
Players may work hard to get into the game, but I think that creating a feeling of community among fans keeps them there. Look how the word "community" changed social network sites YouTube and LinkedIn.
When it comes to hockey, some might think it's the player's salary (an average $1.7 million annually, capping at $50.3 million) that keeps them in line. They say that if the players don't put (marketing) heart into the game, the league would trade them in without missing a beat.
I, however, felt Luongo's love for his sport.