By hosting its Winter Classic in one of sports' most beloved venues, the NHL further expanded its relevance with fans of all ages and allegiances in its ongoing bid to strengthen its brand at three critical touchpoints: the in-game experience, media exposure, and youth hockey outreach.
Neglect and missteps on all these fronts had caused professional hockey's brand to essentially flat-line even before the ownership lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season.
The comeback has been aided by several on-ice rule changes, including the fan-friendly shootout that has increased scoring and excitement levels at NHL games. A salary cap created much-needed parity, giving each of the league's 30 teams a realistic shot at the championship Stanley Cup. In turn, attendance has grown, television ratings improved, and merchandise sales boomed since the lockout.
It's been a remarkable turnaround serving as a lesson for brand reinvention.
In the 1990s, the NHL lost its connection with core fans following ticket price escalations that effectively barred them from the arena. It's the core fan masses who help increase television ratings, purchase a larger share of merchandise, and become the best brand ambassadors. They also tend to be more forgiving and stick by their team during a poor season.
The new NHL is successfully reforging those bonds. A robust fan section on its Web site, (www.nhl.com) encourages a viral sharing of the love. It's also getting creative in its partnerships, as evidenced by Honda's ambitious integrated campaign based on their shared commitment to the families that power the game.
A second challenge involved difficulties getting the television exposure that keeps fans connected, given the post-lockout loss of its long-time television partner ESPN. In response, the NHL mined alternate ways to bring the game to its fans. It partnered with Comcast to create the NHL Network, and was the first league to reach an agreement with YouTube to broadcast game highlights and off-ice features. Among other benefits? It gave players additional exposure -- an area in which the NHL had long fallen down.
Further, the Winter Classic, carried by NBC, provided a prime vehicle for broad exposure. This year's game not only drew over 40,000 to the Friendly Confines, but also earned the highest television ratings for an NHL game since 1975. Ratings have also surged for the Stanley Cup finals, which last year hit their highest levels since 2002.
A third touchpoint is youth hockey, with huge brand impact. Many NHL fans grew up playing the game, and youth hockey programs all across North America grew dramatically in the late 1980s through the 1990s. But the expense and time commitment brought growth to a plateau.
In response, the NHL has launched its "Hockey is for Everyone" initiative, providing financial support and programs to 23 non-profit youth hockey organizations across North America -- and having reached more than 45,000 youngsters so far. Teams, too, are carrying through: More than 600 children, aged 4 through 8, have become Little Penguins through a partnership between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dick's Sporting Goods. The more kids that can play the sport, the greater a following of lifelong fans the NHL creates.
The NHL has made great strides. But like any reviving brand, the league must guard against migrating too far from its target customer in growing its franchise. Ticket prices, for example, are rising rapidly again, posing a potential barrier to the core fan attendance. And the salary cap per team has jumped from $39 million to $58 million, making it difficult for smaller teams to compete.
The example to follow is ESPN -- which has successfully expanded from its base of serving sports fanatics' information needs to become a powerhouse of sports programming, merchandise, restaurant experiences, and fan loyalty.
How the league manages such risks will be interesting to watch. Stay tuned.
Editor's note: If you'd like to contribute to this newsletter, contact Nina Lentini.