The National Hockey League is playing catch-up with the other major sports leagues -- not just in terms of ratings or attendance, but also in its outreach to existing and new fans.
"The investments we are making now in new media and database marketing are direct efforts to deepen the relationship with our avid fans," says NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "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."
It's a multi-pronged effort designed to help heal the scars left behind by the bruising 310-day lockout during 2004-05, which resulted in the cancellation of the entire season. It was the first time a major North American professional sports league called off a complete season over labor issues. It also marked the first time that the league's signature Stanley Cup was not awarded since 1919.
Even more importantly, the league is determined to reassert itself in the popular imagination. While no one's necessarily expecting the sport to overtake baseball, football, or basketball in popularity, there's a very real sense that the NHL feels it can effectively compete with the likes of auto racing and golf.
"From a strategic perspective, we're looking to engage our 53 million fans," says John Collins, senior EVP of business and media for the league. "The standard metric in sports is the weekend afternoon broadcast TV ratings. In the U.S. especially we've been a league challenged by our broadcast partners to pop a rating. As a result, we're focusing on how to improve our local and national TV presence, and steering the conversation in a different direction."
The league has national contracts with NBC and cable network Versus. Regular-season ratings on NBC were up 11 percent from the previous year, while its Versus ratings rose by 24 percent for the same period (impacted in part by a roughly 4 percent increase in households carrying Versus). But the biggest blockbuster was an outdoor game held on New Year's Day 2008 in Buffalo, which drew a 2.6 rating for NBC -- the highest since the league debuted on Fox in 1994.
The league would of course like to repeat that experience, but Bettman is being cautious about overplaying the uniqueness of what's now called "The Winter Classic." Several major markets, including New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, and Montreal have expressed interest in hosting an outdoor game, and Bettman says it's likely that one will take place next season.
However, he told a March 5 press conference, "There was a special, almost romantic, emotional, exciting, holistic quality to what took place in returning to our outdoor roots. If you do it too much, I think you lose some of that quality. Everything we do, we want it to be special in the outdoor-game context."
Ramping Up Fan Enthusiasm
In addition to special events like the Winter Classic and the Cup finals-which Collins says will also be heavily promoted so that it's "not just another game"-the NHL is actively seeking to become a regular part of its fans' lives.
"We may sell $1 billion in merchandise but it's not always readily available," says Perry Cooper, vice president of NHL Direct and database marketing. "We're looking to do more of everything to get our fans engaged, and to build one-to-one relationships with them."
That includes mining customer data for favorite teams and following up with team-specific marketing, as well as building excitement in the post-season akin to the Super Bowl behemoth, which draws millions of viewers whose favorite teams aren't even playing in the game.
"Right now, whether your favorite team is involved is still limiting," Cooper says, noting that fans are "at least 50 percent more likely" to respond to team-specific marketing. "We want to activate our existing fan base that's passionate, but perhaps not activated at a level we think they could be. And we want to run as fast as we can."
Improvements include streamlining the league's previously clunky website for easier navigation -- and merchandise sales. An upgraded product configurator makes it easier for customers to add a name and number to a team jersey and to see what the final product will look like; Cooper says such jerseys make up nearly 40 percent of the site's sales.
The league is also trying to stay consumer-friendly when it comes to pricing. Ticket prices in the three years since the lockout have risen by 0.3 percent, compared with the 5-6 percent in the other major sports for the same period.
Nearly every aspect of the game and the league are being closely looked at, Collins says. "We're very much involved with talking to our fans on a one-to-one basis," he says. "This is a huge opportunity for the league."