By Rudy Mezzetta When the Predators partnered with the city of Nashville to build a new community rink – the twin-pad Ford Ice Center, which opened this fall – the goal wasn’t merely to extend the team’s brand. It was to convert new people to true hockey believers. “Get a stick in someone’s hands and they’re a fan for life,” said Sean Henry, the Preds’ president and chief operating officer. Growing the fan base, while ensuring existing fans stay happy, is crucial for the league. It’s a long-term commitment, said league executives, but it’s the lifeblood for the sport, and by extension, the business of the NHL.
“We’re always asking ourselves, is the game growing? Is it vibrant? Are the fans engaged?” said Brian Jennings, the NHL’s chief marketing officer. It takes a multi-pronged approach: growing the game at the grassroots, working with media partners to showcase the league and its players and leveraging the power of special events such as the Winter Classic. “It’s about building brand equity over time,” said Manish Tripathi, a professor who teaches sports marketing at Emory University. “Customer relationship management is as important in sports as it is in any other industry.” Increasingly, technology and social media will be linchpins creating engagement, encouraging dialogue between fans, the players and teams, executives say. This is critical to winning over the next generation. “Not only is social media ubiquitous, but it’s an inseparable part of a younger fan’s life,” Jennings said. Teams are using technology, too, to get a better sense of how their fans watch the game, and in turn, what promotions or reward programs will best suit them. The Washington Capitals are testing an app that allows fans to watch the game live while using Google Glass eyewear. Fans will be able to see team-supplied stats, replays and social media chatter without having to look down at a device. “It’s going to be better than the technology you have at home,” said Joe Dupriest of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, the corporate owner of the Capitals. Marquee events like outdoor games and other special occasions can draw in loyal and casual fans. Events leading up to the game, including open practices and chances to interact with players, draw in the broader community. “In terms of generating buzz, the spectacle of these events is amazing for the NHL,” Tripathi said. Last season, the NHL held six outdoor games. This season, two are on the docket – the Winter Classic in Washington and a Stadium Series game in San Jose. Tripathi acknowledges the importance of moderation and maintaining novelty. “How much are you diluting the effect if you start doing these events too often?” he said. Leading up to this year’s outdoor games, the NHL is again making its players available for behind-the-scenes media content, this season with the network Epix, replacing HBO. “It’s peeling the helmet off of our players,” Jennings said. Last fall, the NHL signed a blockbuster Canadian broadcast deal with Rogers, through which the league expects to broaden its reach. The media firm is producing a series of Hockey 101 programs in 22 languages to draw in new immigrant communities who may be unfamiliar with the rules of the game. The league sees a great opportunity, too, in expanding its reach overseas, though obstacles such as time zones and cultural differences remain. The key, Jennings says, is to offer fans great online content in a variety of languages – NHL.com offers a choice of eight – that they can tailor to their preferences. “We increasingly look at ourselves as a global brand,” Jennings said. A revitalized World Cup of Hockey is expected to be a catalyst for a renewed push overseas, including bringing back games in Europe. “(If we) get the World Cup laid out on a regular basis from a timing standpoint,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman at a media event, “then a lot of pieces to the puzzle will fall in behind that, including exhibition, regular season and other international competitions.” Of course, the greatest asset the NHL has in broadening its fan base is its existing one. The Predators have two ambassador groups, one consisting of season ticket holders and the other of college student fans, who are offered incentives – such as trips to NHL out-of-market events – to introduce the game to more people. While expanding the fan base is critical, it shouldn’t come at the risk of turning off longtime fans, executives say. The key is to be conservative when making changes to the game itself and to honor hockey’s history. “If a marketing opportunity is going to come at the expense of our traditional fans, we’re not going to do it,” Dupriest said. “They’re our core.”
This feature appears in the Nov. 24 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.