The National Hockey League is running a power play of new promotional and media moves to stir fan interest in the competitive U.S. pro sports marketplace.
Among the league’s latest moves is the upcoming Amp Energy NHL Winter Classic game, an outdoor match-up between the Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins. The New Year’s Day tilt in Buffalo, the first outdoor NHL game in the U.S., is intended to evoke the sport’s beginnings on outdoor ponds and rinks.
Pepsi will pump up its Amp brand with signage and other activation plans unavailable at press time.
The match-up has already succeeded in getting fans’ attention, selling out the venue’s 73,000 seats 15 minutes after tickets went on sale. That tops the 57,000 fans the NHL drew in 2003 for the outdoor Heritage Classic played in Edmonton, Canada.
“The notion of having the game return to its roots was important,” says Brian Jennings, NHL executive vice president of marketing. “It’s a big event and part of our long-term strategy is to do big events and break through the clutter in the marketplace.”
That clutter in the current sports marketplace has left the NHL struggling to share the spotlight with the other pro sports, particularly football and basketball.
A fragmented television strategy has hurt the NHL in recent years. The outdoor Winter Classic will air on NBC as the first of 10 games that network will carry during the NHL regular season.
The Versus sports cable network carries 70 NHL contests, while 50 games are carried on the league’s own NHL Network, which is helping to solidify the picture as that channel gains carriage on cable systems around the country. It also gained traction on satellite TV this season, with its introduction on DirecTV in November.
But the NHL has also actively sought new media exposure, especially with a younger fan base. It struck partnerships last season with MySpace, YouTube and Google Video, all of which now offer NHL clips.
In November, it struck a deal with Verizon Wireless to make game video highlights available in 15-second clips via mobile phones with accompanying audio for a $2.99 monthly subscription. Delivering up to four alerts nightly, the Verizon clips lend a hip immediacy to NHL action, with highlights posted within moments after the plays occur.
The emergence of young stars, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney Crosby and the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin, has informed the league’s strategy to attract a younger following. “We feel we’re well positioned as a brand and as a sport to appeal to a younger fan base,” says Jennings.
Crosby was among the league’s young stars featured in a TV ad campaign with the tag line “Live Every Shift,” emphasizing the players’ passion for the game. Ovechkin was featured in a second series of ads for the campaign plugging the new Reebok Edge jerseys and the league’s online store www.Shop.NHL.com.
Based on Simmons Market Research, 30% of the NHL’s fan base is aged 18 to 34 years old, compared to approximately 25% for the NFL and Major League Baseball, and 30% for the NBA.
This is the second season that the NHL is conducting balloting for its All-Star game online. Jennings says the league plans to use that platform to run sweepstakes around that annual event with its marketing partners, which include Reebok, Pepsi, Dodge, Verizon Wireless and XM Satellite Radio.
The league is in the process of finalizing plans for community outreach initiatives to engage fans directly in events around this season’s all star game in Atlanta. “It’s always fun to see your fan base interact with the all stars,” Jennings says.
XM expanded its NHL coverage from six to nine channels to carry every game on the regular season schedule. It also carries NHL Home Ice, a new 24-hour hockey talk radio channel that includes a show that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman occasionally hosts himself.
The NHL Home Ice studio is located in the NHL Powered By Reebok store on New York’s Sixth Avenue — in shouting distance of the NBA’s store on Fifth Avenue. The new store features a glitzy array of video screens amid high-ticket apparel and sports shoes that can be customized with NHL team logos.
The NHL Web site relaunched this season with a video player that is also accessible on all 30 team Web sites. It enables fans to navigate between live games available on NHL Center Ice Online, game highlights and exclusive team footage in multiple video windows or full-screen. The league is also considering submissions of fan-generated content during this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
The NHL is obviously seeking all opportunities it can to promote a sport that, as Jennings puts it, has been “traditionally underserved by traditional media.”
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