By Stu Hackel
On Nov. 29, 1991, the Bruins hosted the Canadiens in an afternoon game. It was the day after Thanksgiving and Boston defeated its fierce Montreal rivals 5-4 in overtime. Whether it was superstition, a strong fan response or smart marketing, the B's repeated the post-Turkey Day match the following season, this time against the Hartford Whalers (again an OT victory for the home side) and this Friday afternoon game has been a fixture on Boston's calendar ever since.
Now, 20 years later, the NHL and NBC are turning this tradition into a special event, one that is emblematic of an innovative new era for a league historically considered second-rate in the areas of marketing and promotion.
When the NHL and NBC signed their previous revenue sharing agreement in 2004 that paid the league no rights fee, many scoffed, calling it another sign of its backward approach to business. But no one was laughing when the two signed a unique 10-year agreement earlier this year that pays the league $2 billion for both broadcast and cable coverage while integrating its other platforms, like NHL.com and the NHL Network into NBC's sales effort and jointly working with advertisers to create new opportunities to broaden the game's reach.
This is not, of course, the first time the league and network have cooperated to their mutual benefit. The Winter Classic has become a major event on the sports calendar, placing hockey firmly in the mainstream of North America's New Year's celebrations. It has also spun off HBO's insightful 24/7 reality series on the two teams that are competing in the Winter Classic (a 12-minute preview of this year's Rangers-Flyers series premiers on HBO Friday evening).
This Friday's nationally televised game on NBC between the Detroit Red Wings and Bruins, which is being called "The Thanksgiving Showdown," is the first example of this new approach. The NHL hasn't been televised on a national broadcast network in the U.S. this early in the season for at least 20 years, and this game, besides featuring two very popular clubs, will also include referee Kelly Sutherland being wired with a microphone attached to his shirt in order to pick up his conversations during the game.
These are bold moves in the usually conservative worlds of the NHL and sports TV, but no one seems to have any paralyzing second thoughts.
"There’s some college football there (on Friday's TV schedule), no question; there’s a lot of it," says Jon Miller, President of Programming for NBC Sports and Versus (soon to be renamed NBC Sports Network). "The fact of the matter is this becomes a meaningful event for hockey fans. The great thing about hockey fans is they’ll find the product and if you make it available to them, they’ll come to it.
"A great example is the Winter Classic. When we put the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, people thought we were crazy to compete with college football. And now it’s the most talked about event on New Year’s Day….You develop this tradition, it’s not going to happen overnight, but I imagine in three or four years everybody is going to recognize that the day after Thanksgiving there’s a great classic NHL matchup that’s on NBC."
"The Thanksgiving window is a good one, it’s a good opportunity for us," says John Collins, the NHL's Chief Operating Officer. Collins heads up the NHL's marketing efforts, having come over from the NFL in 2006. Like the NHL itself, it seems as if he's hitting his stride as he guides the league in this new direction. The NFL is done well on Thanksgiving Day and U.S.-based NHL teams have a tradition of playing games in that Friday window, so NBC was very willing to take a flyer on it."
The game gets title sponsorship from Discover credit cards, which has jumped into its relationship with the NHL in a big way. Their recent "Peggy" commercials featuring Patrick Kane and Tim Thomas are quite clever (continuing the series that first featured Phil Pritchard, the keeper of the Stanley Cup) and accomplish what critics always said the NHL has failed at: big-time promotion of its star players.
"To their credit, they've really taken it to the next level," Collins says of the Discover group. "These are two of the best commercials I've seen in a while. The players look good; they’re good actors. Who knew hockey players were such good actors?"
Well, some NHL referees do, but that's another story.
NBC also has created a rather good tune-in ad for the game.
"I think what you’ll find out is a lot of people are staying home on Black Friday, not necessarily going out and dealing with all the nonsense and craziness in shopping centers and malls," Miller adds. "And a lot of people will be buying things online and using their Discover card to do it."
Nice plug for the sponsor from the interviewee, there.
The game, the network and the credit card will also be promoted during NBC's coverage of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with an NHL float as part of the festivities. Riding on the float along with the kids who'll play hockey on a makeshift rink will be a pair of Hockey Hall of Famers, Bruins president Cam Neely and Red Wings broadcaster Larry Murphy. (Cam Neely on a Thanksgiving float...it boggles the mind.) A third big-name passenger will be Grammy Award winner Ce-Lo Green, known as the lead singer on the big Gnarles Barkley hit "Crazy" and his own huge hit, the sanitized version of which was titled "Forget You." Ce-Lo is also a star on the NBC show "The Voice."
This is all rather delightful, but it's also shrewd cross-promotion and it provides terrific exposure of the sport and this particular game to a wider audience than hockey usually gets in the U.S.
"The nice thing with the NHL is we can sit down with them and create ideas and conceive ideas and we can implement them working very closely with them," says Miller. "And they appreciate all the different things we bring to the table in terms of the way we market and promote using all the different assets we have in the NBC family, not just the NBC Sports family. The parade is just a bonus."
"The float in the parade was a nice addition," Collins agrees, noting how well the relationship between the network and the league is working. "The synergy with NBC in terms of getting Ce-Lo Green on there, who's a pretty big star for a pretty big show on NBC, we think, it's fun. Food, family and hockey."
A good recipe for the Thanksgiving weekend.
Beyond that, there are some interesting aspects to this game, one being that it exposes the NHL about five weeks earlier on the NBC schedule than before, when the Winter Classic represented the network's season debut for hockey. The NHL has been making a splash with the star of the season for a couple of years now. Is it possible NBC will join that splash and consider putting opening night games on the big network?
"NBC is always wiling to take a flyer on ideas and work hard. I think it’s a function of the business," says Collins. "Are the ratings there and is the advertising there? And I think that’s what we’ve been building over the last five-years and now I think we can in this new relationship and with the marketing promotional and sales assets tha NBC is bringing to the NHL. I think we’ll get there real soon."
Collins envisions that first game being a rematch between two conference championship or even Stanley Cup finalists. "I was at the NFL and had a hand in getting that whole 'Kickoff' thing going and I think the philosophy is the same thing here. Let’s start the season as big as we end the season," he says.
There is a perception in many markets that these special events the NHL has developed in the last few seasons involve the same teams from traditional hockey markets, most of them located in the east. Are the league and NBC considering expanding the roster of clubs they'll feature in their programming?
Both Miller and Collins say yes. Miller realizes weather may constrict the list of teams who could host the Winter Classic, but the Thanksgiving Showdown and another recent NHL-NBC initiative, Hockey Day in America, which debuted last year, can also be platforms for more participation by other NHL clubs.
Collins agrees, adding that the 1 p.m. TV window does restrict how many teams outside the east can realistically participate in big televised events. But he has a refreshing rejoinder to those concerns.
"All these events, particularly the Thanksgiving Challenge and the Winter Classic, are dress rehearsals for what we think is the biggest event, which is the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s really where I think the potential of the new NBC relationship becomes evident because, in the past, only 40 percent of the games in the first two rounds were aired nationally in their entirety. This year, the commitment under the new agreement is that every game will be televised nationally in its entirety.
"And we’ve been very aggressive working with NBC and some of our other partners to be sure we’re promoting the Stanley Cup as totally as we should, because ideally we’d like to build that into almost a March Madness around the Stanley Cup. So that is really what we’re focused on. The brand equity around the Stanley Cup, even among non-hockey fans, is right there with the World Series, the Super Bowl and the Olympics -- the best, really, in sports."
When a hockey marketing guy recognizes that the league should finally be putting its biggest emphasis on promoting the best hockey of the year above all else, you know things are headed in the right direction.
I was discussing all this with a lifetime hockey professional during the week and he said to me it was time the NHL got credit for its work in this area. He noted the league is no longer in the marketing Dark Ages. "Not everything they've done has worked," he said, "but at least they're trying."
They're also succeeding.