With the rise of NASCAR and the Tiger Woods-led PGA, the National Hockey League has had to fight to retain its modest position as the fourth sport in the United States-lagging well behind baseball, football, and basketball in terms of mass popularity and TV ratings. But NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman plans to change all that, assembling a team of executives determined to rebrand the sport for casual and hardcore hockey enthusiasts alike.
"The investments we are making now in new media and database marketing are direct efforts to deepen the relationship with our avid fans," Bettman says. "We want to enable our fans to stay connected to our game, regardless of where they are, which team is their favorite, or how they prefer to consume content."
Leading the NHL's rebranding team is John Collins, who joined the league in late 2006 after spending 15 years in a variety of roles with the National Football League. "Our brand is bigger than our business," says Collins, the NHL's senior executive vice president of business and media. According to Collins, the NHL maintains a $2.3 billion business-compared with Major League Baseball's just under and the NFL's just over $6 billion-and sells almost $1 billion in merchandise each year.
"Our existing fan base is passionate, but generally it's not been 'activated' at a level we think it could be," he says of the 53 million NHL fans in North America. "It's all about building a one-to-one relationship with them to drive them further and deeper into the business."
One of the league's main focal points moving forward is identifying each fan's favorite team by encouraging a selection when they register at NHL.com. (The "undecided" option will be dropped from the top to the bottom of the list, in the belief that that will encourage fans to choose a team.) "Forty percent of our fan base lives outside their favorite team's home market," Collins says. "Right now [that 40 percent] can't get access to their favorite hockey teams, regularly access highlights, or see the games. It's a huge opportunity for the league."
"It's all about driving engagement, with a very specific and one-to-one focus with fans to offer them access to their favorite team," adds Perry Cooper, vice president of NHL direct and database marketing, who joined the league in late 2007. Efforts (including simplifying NHL.com's registration process and direct marketing campaigns) to expand the NHL's customer database have resulted in a 40 percent growth in names, email addresses, and favorite teams from a year ago, he says, adding that the NHL has been negotiating with league sponsors like Dodge to share information about customers who contact them via NHL-related marketing. "A customized database is critical to activation and incremental revenue and enriching the relationship fans have with the NHL," he says.
Also vital was the "touchpoint audit" Cooper conducted to examine where and how NHL fans interact with the league and each other to maximize future marketing efforts. "We're looking at displaced fan data in a customer-centric, geogated way, communicating specifically with each displaced fan based on their IP address. If we can determine someone's a Red Wings fan who lives outside Michigan, we send them an email about how, if they can't get the next game on TV, they can now watch it on Center Ice," Cooper says.
Collins also hopes to make the post-season, including the Stanley Cup finals, more of a special event. "The Stanley Cup is as big as the Super Bowl or an Olympics medal, in terms of brand equity," he says. As such, the league wants to ally with a national grocery chain or another retailer with significant signage and other to-be-determined promotional deals "to activate in ways that we haven't before," Collins explains.
Taking a page from the NBA playbook, the league is also actively seeking opportunities to promote individual personalities like up-and-coming stars Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, and Roberto Luongo to individualize what it views as the best of a new breed. The NHL is also looking to make inroads outside North America, based in part on the favorable coverage of last fall's NFL game in London and several MLB games played in Japan, as well as on the fact that roughly one third of NHL players come from outside the U.S. The 2008-2009 season will be inaugurated with games in Stockholm and Prague.
Collins sees almost unlimited opportunities for growth. "We are a premiere league in an international sport that's in the midst of revitalizing itself," he says. "We're taking this on the road to talk to strategic business partners, corporate sponsors, digital media players, and so on. We want to run as quickly as we can."