Q&A: NHL's Winter Classic Sponsor Play-by-Play


The National Hockey League's Winter Classic game, which sneaked into the New Year season three years ago, has become the sports fan's alternative to a winter parade of bowl games, including the Rose Bowl, happening the same day.

The Winter Classic match, officially the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic (the title sponsor has re-upped for an additional five years) has also become a big sponsorship magnet. As the league gears up for the 2011 game at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field (Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals), the forthcoming game is garnering record numbers of sponsors, sold out its brand partnership inventory two months before the match, and posted a 21% increase in sponsorship revenue versus last year.

Among the 16 or so sponsorships the league has sold for the game are Discover Card, which signed as title sponsor of the 2011 NHL All-Star Game and official card of the NHL among other things; Honda; Verizon; Dick's Sporting Goods; Pepsi Max; and GEICO. Verizon and GEICO will debut new hockey-themed spots on NBC during the game.



Keith Wachtel, SVP integrated sales at NHL, talks about the game and how sponsors are activating.

Q: What's the Cliff Notes version of NHL's sponsorship roster for the Winter Classic?

A: The title sponsorship, which Bridgestone has, really needs that long commitment to build equity.

The next level is the four in-ice positions -- our four "Presenting Partners" Verizon, Honda, GEICO and Dick's Sporting Goods. Three of the four we want to engage in long-term partnerships as well through the season. The fourth, Dick's Sporting Goods, is a huge retailer of NHL products and a great partner for licensees, and it is in the Pittsburgh area.

McDonald's has, since the game's inception three years ago at Wrigley Field, "owned" penalty boxes and benches. The next sponsorship level is branding on camera-visible dasher boards, which are unique to us, and where the majority of our other partners appear. So, within that you will have brands like Reebok, Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, Army, Discover Card, and Cisco -- those are our bigger partners who secure that inventory -- but all partners get in-arena assets like signage on the LED Jumbotron screens, mention in PA announcements, signage at the venue, game program ads, and local market opportunities. The last category is local partnerships, which might mean camera opportunities, but they are smaller partners looking to activate on a more local level.

Q: Who will cover the game?

A: Keep in mind that while this is in the U.S., most of the partners are North American and also in some respects global. The game will be covered on NBC in the U.S. and on CBC and RDS in Canada, and ESPN, so partners will get a big presence.

Q: You noted a 20% increase in sponsorship revenue. Where is it coming from, more sponsorship opportunities and real estate?

A: No, the revenue increase is from supply and demand. We are building equity and momentum in this, and quite frankly our partners get it. We have the ability to sell partnerships for increased revenue. The other thing is the growth of our own media properties like and NHL Network and that's all working correctly, and that means interest in NHL has increased.

But if you look at the sponsorship roster, while we think these sponsors would be partners regardless, I think the Winter Classic actually helps them in selling the NHL to their management. It's a property that has become so important in the marketing calendar of our partners that it has had a halo effect in terms of our overall business through the year. It's the keystone of our regular season, and from a regular-season standpoint, it gets the highest ratings. That's one of the reasons our partners clamor for it.

Q: What drives the ratings?

A: Where the game is in the calendar there are many bowl games, so this is a differentiating sport for that period. It puts us on the front page, literally. There has come to be more press about this game than anything else on Jan. 1. In a sense, the NHL has stolen New Year's Day. And it helps that NBC has done a great job supporting it. The fact that Bob Costas is hosting also really legitimizes it. From a broadcast standpoint, 60% of ad inventory has been sold to [NHL sponsorship] partners. That's great because we aren't just looking to sign partners to fill our categories, but also to market and activate across touchpoints, including broadcasters [advertising opportunities] and individual NHL teams.

Q: Is the NHL helping to sell network advertising to partners?

A: No, we don't sell the ads. NBC does that, and they have done a great job optimizing the value of the event. What NBC has also done is build a marketing platform for ads around hockey, which didn't exist before.

Q: But how do you explain to prospective sponsors how viewership has grown?

A: Actually, viewership has been stable, but at this point the key metric is in comparison to regular-season games. The Winter Classic will do three times what regular-season games will do in ratings. Partly because the game galvanizes the hockey fan who is already the most avid in all of sports. And while, like all sports -- which are tribal in nature -- fans love their team, the Winter Classic also demonstrates that hockey fans will tune in to big events whether or not they are fans of the Penguins or Capitols. And programs like HBO's "24/7" [documentary/reality show about the Winter Classic teams and their rivalry that began as a pre-fight reality show about boxers] reach even casual fans and people who may not even watch hockey.

Q: How is the league promoting the game?

A: Our promotions activity uses all of our touchpoints, including NHL Network, which is in 40 million homes. We will do 17 hours of live programming from the Winter Classic itself -- twice what we did last year. So if you are a hockey fan, NHL Network is the only place you can see full content up till game day.

And we sold that coverage to Reebok, which will present all of the NHL Network coverage live from Heinz Field during the Classic. Also for the first time, we will be using virtual signage on NHL Network during broadcast of the practice session on Dec. 31. That means we can rotate Reebok along with other partners into the game beyond just the dasher-board real estate.

Q: What is the larger strategy for sponsors involved in the Winter Classic but looking at the big picture?

A: I think what you'll see is activation of our key partners in the U.S. and Canada all season long, partly for the sake of continuity: there's the Heritage Classic Outdoor game on Feb. 20, which is a huge window for our Canadian partners.

The two months of the Stanley Cup Playoffs are huge, so there are spikes of activity. The model is getting partners to activate throughout the season, but to do major event activation in the big windows like the Winter Classic, which lets them activate early in the season, and they want those windows early on.

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