Bud Light has been the Official Beer Sponsor of the NHL since 1998, and at the local level, sponsors 21 of the league's 24 U.S. teams.
Keith Wachtel, NHL's SVP/sales and marketing, says the arrangement with A-B reflects a new league strategy of offering marketers category sponsorship in both in the U.S. and Canada, via games, NHL special events, and on NHL-controlled media.
Three years ago, Labatt signed a licensing deal to distribute Bud Light in Canada, but the NHL marketing program gives Bud Light official beer status in both countries. "That's what is unique for us," he says. "Other sports properties don't have businesses north of the border. So we are uniquely positioned to provide a North American platform for our partners."
He says the NHL controls its content, whether at NHL.com (broadband or the NHL Network, broadcast partners. "If we don't have one brand aligned, we have either conflicting messages or we eliminate a key partner.
In past years, NHL's beer partner in Canada was Labatt Blue. Wachtel says the league is trying to bring partners across borders. "For example, in our old deals, we might have Home Depot in Canada, but no home-improvement partner in the U.S." He says the league is talking to Home Depot to expand their presence to the U.S. market as well.
"Because there are differences in how the U.S. and Canada consume and view hockey, in Canada we are trying to elevate the brand; in the U.S. we are trying to activate it," he says, explaining that in Canada hockey is religion, and the NHL is not the only league. "It's their heritage and pastime, and everyone activates against hockey," he says. "We want to be at the top of the pyramid. We want everything to emanate from NHL, and we want our partners to use hockey to elevate NHL as the leading hockey brand in Canada."
In the U.S., where there is a plethora of sports, he explains, it's about awareness, and activating the partner brands against the sport of hockey, "so you look at partners using NHL in creative." Player Sidney Crosby appearing in Gatorade ads, for instance--or NHL in Pepsi Amp ads.
He says that the A-B renewal will include the beer brand's first national NHL promotion. They will put full weight behind it. We don't want people to just license the rights to NHL," says Wachtel.
The unified U.S./Canada brand approach for NHL includes more cross-national grassroots efforts, such as next year's All Star game, to be held in Canada. "Bud Light will not only be able to market and promote around the game, but leverage it on media. You will see Bud Light on the ice, on backboards."
Wachtel says NHL is working on sponsors in auto, insurance, technology and a credit card company and a Canadian wireless partner, "the first time in a long time the league has entered into exclusive content and marketing rights partnership for a Canada wireless partner."
"We have always been one of the major pro sports leagues with a great demographic of consumers; but we have developed a strategy of having a lot more to offer partners," says Wachtel.