by Cheryl Adams
As summer rolls on and the threat of a lockout looming darkly over the coming season, it seems like a good time to look at the NHL's recent marketing efforts. After all, the league has spent a considerable amount of time and effort courting newbie viewers over the past season, particularly during the playoffs.
Whether it's been fans finally returning to the sport after the last lockout caused the loss of the entire 2004-05 season, or that hockey has picked up so many fans over the past few years, it's never been a better time to be the NHL. Revenues this year were $3.3 billion. That figure might pale next to the NFL's $9.5 billion, but it is closing in rapidly to the NBA's $4.4 billion. The NHL is finally on the right track to escaping from under the shadow of other pro sports.
For many years, hockey has been regarded as a "niche" sport in the U.S. The mentality has been that if there's not ice on the ground in the winter, hockey could not succeed in the region. Die-hard fan bases in cities such as Washington, Raleigh, Tampa, Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Jose have proven otherwise. Recreational league numbers across the U.S. have boomed, even in "untraditional" markets.
For anybody who has watched hockey for a long time, the increase in popularity isn't surprising. Hockey is a fast, exciting sport; its athletes embody team spirit, dedication, and good humor. What's not to like?
Amazingly, there are people out there who still haven't discovered the joys of hockey, so the NHL has to market itself to reach them. Here's this season's report card.
Twitter/Social media and NHL.com
The official NHL Twitter account underwent a slight change this season, becoming a bit perkier and more aggressively pushing shop.nhl.com, as well as pushing NHL site posts - sometimes "In case you missed it..." as a lead-in is popping up fairly frequently on @NHL.
However, @NHL tends to be a little behind other tweeters - notably, "hockey insiders" such as TSN's Bob McKenzie and Darren Dreger, and ESPN's Pierre LeBrun - when it comes to breaking league news. By the time something has been written up and posted to NHL.com or even its Twitter, the news has already spread across social media.
Individual teams are also ahead of the league curve when it comes to playing up their social media. Smart teams have buttons prominently positioned on their home page to connect to their team's social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and even Pinterest.
NHL.com remains slightly unwieldy to navigate. Social media buttons are nowhere to be found on the front page, although they can be found on individual articles. It can take some digging to find some things. For example, are you interested in seeing profiles of NHL Network personalities? First, you have to go to the NHL Network sub-page and then you can find links to the on-air talent; there should be a direct link to their page from the NHL Network drop-down menu on the front page.
(UPDATE: CORRECTION: Social media buttons CAN be found on the front page, but they're tiny and tucked up in the top right corner of the page, so the moment you scroll down, it's easy to completely miss them. Twitter & Facebook buttons are repeated just above the page footer. In comparison to most team pages, the social media buttons are very easy to overlook or miss completely.)
Additionally, NHL.com has a huge quantity of videos and articles archived online, but it is difficult to search through them as the search engine is very limited and returns its results in a very helter-skelter fashion. One would need to be a Google-fu wizard in order to find the article or video you're interested in without searching through multiple pages of search results. There is no way to refine or sort results by such obvious things as date, writer, or other. For example: searching for "Sidney Crosby" gives over 9,000 results, which then you have to hunt through starting with the newest first.
Hockey fans are the most tech-savvy among sports fans, and NHL.com reflects this, being a video-heavy site. Unfortunately, when you're trying to watch videos on the site, you're subjected to a commercial for nearly every video you watch. If it's the same ad over and over, it can kill the desire to surf the video areas. Additionally, if you are on a poor connection, the advertisement and the video often load simultaneously, and try to play at the same time, downgrading the website experience even further.
The website needs to better recognize how a visitor is using the video portions of the site. Are they heavily video-surfing? If so, spare them a commercial with every single video viewed.
NHL mobile platforms
While NHL's GameCenter phone app is pretty good, you need to be a Verizon 4G LTE or tablet user in order to get the version of the app that has the max functionality. If you are Verizon 4G LTE customer, you get it all - including live streaming of games carried on NBC, as well as game highlights and NHL On The Fly, in addition to the app's other functions, such as live radio feeds, score updates, Twitter feeds, etc.
It is particularly odd that there is one function of the GameCenter app that the main NHL.com site does not reflect: on the NHL.com site all game times and events are reflected in Eastern time — and only in Eastern time. That's all well and good if you are, in fact, located in the Eastern time zone, but 13 teams and their fans live in three other time zones, and there's fans around the world.
Even the most basic of websites can reflect local time zones to make things easier for local users; why doesn't NHL.com? In fact, why don't all major league sports do the same? Why make people have to figure out the local time conversions when they're looking at sites in their own time zone?
If you use the NHL phone app, it gives you the option to display event times in the local time zone. NHL.com's main site has no such functionality - it doesn't recognize the viewer's computer clock, nor does it give an option within account preferences to change the displayed time zone. While this may seem a mild inconvenience, it's simply odd in this day and age.
As the content available on NHL.com continues to grow in this media-rich age, it is time for the website's functionality to be updated so it is at least as advanced as its mobile platforms.
Twitter/social media: B+
GameCenter app: A-
NHL Network, GameCenter Live, Center Ice
NHL's Center Ice and GameCenter have been developed side by side, but as mobile technology improves in leaps and bounds, it is time to integrate the two.
Some cable providers like Comcast carry NHLN as part of their sports package; others like DirecTV only carry NHLN as part of Center Ice. GameCenter can be played through your TV or your computer, but does not include NHLN.
People who buy GameCenter to be able to watch via computer but who do not get NHLN via their cable provider are unlikely to also buy Center Ice, due to the cost and duplication of the primary product (game feeds).
If you have Center Ice and go on the road for work or a vacation, there are no short-term options to get GameCenter for your laptop for just for a week or a single month - and if you've ever traveled in hockey season, you know how frustrating it can be to try to find hockey playing on hotel TV channels!
NHL Center Ice package claims that with "dual feeds" you can "choose from either the home or away broadcasts", but as any Center Ice subscriber will attest, if you're sitting at home in say, Chicago, and would like to watch an alternative broadcast team, you can't flip over to the opposing team's feed - the other channel will be blacked out.
If you pay for GameCenter, you can't watch your home team on your computer in your home market, because it's "blacked out" due to broadcast restrictions. This makes no sense - what if you don't have a TV, and you bought GameCenter so you could watch your local team via the computer or your tablet/smartphone?
If you're a fan in Florida who lives in the grey zone between Panthers and Lightning coverage, you're never sure which feed - if at all - will be available on your TV, and if you can't watch it on your TV, then you can't always go online to GameCenter to watch it, because sometimes will tell you the "broadcast is blacked out/restricted in your area". Fans in markets like Atlanta live in an area where there is no current NHL team, yet they never know whether or not broadcasts of "local" teams like the Hurricanes and Predators will or will not be available to them, even via Center Ice.
It's mindboggling that we live at a time when there's multiple ways to watch games, but it can be teeth-grindingly difficult to find the game you're trying to watch.
Today's broadcast and online capabilities are coupled with archaic broadcast rules and laws, and nobody is making much effort to educate the consumers about them. The NHL could provide a great asset for customers by having a page on their website explaining some or all of these broadcast restrictions. Who knows - it could even help lead to changes in broadcast restrictions. At the very least, it would help fans understand the "whys" behind broadcast blackouts.
As it currently stands, Center Ice and GameCenter Live are separate products. GameCenter costs $169 and Center Ice is similarly priced. You pay at the start of the season. If you join by the end of October, there is usually a discount of about $20. If you join after the halfway point of the season, the price drops to $79. However, you do not pay the price of the product split over eight months; you have to pay it either as a lump sum or within 3-4 payments of the start of purchasing it.
Additionally, unlike the AHL and ECHL leagues broadcast packages, you cannot subscribe to GameCenter for a night or a week or a single month. There are no options for discounted pricing if you only want to follow one team instead of the whole league, like the AHL and ECHL do.
It's time for the NHL to combine the Center Ice and GameCenter products. As the pricing currently stands, it's like you get the summer free while paying for the eight months of the regular season.
Why not simplify things and make a single combined product of NHL GameCenter cost $15/month, payable month-by-month, year-round? (That'd be $180/year, NHL — more than the current cost.) Join up whenever you want, leave it whenever you want. Watch on TV via your cable provider, or be able to log into any computer/tablet/smartphone and be able to watch. Offer discounted packages at $12/month for people who only want to follow a single team. (Easy upsell to the full price for whole-league coverage!) Offer the option to subscribe for a single 24-hour period for $5. (You know, the whole "hook people on your product" thing.)
Make it as flexible as possible to accommodate the increasing capacity to watch and connect with hockey on the go -- after all, NHL advertising loves to show off its mobile technology; it's time to make the reality fully match the sales pitch.
(UPDATE: DIRECTV: DirecTV's current highest-priced premium plans "Choice Ultimate" and "Premier" now contain NHLN. However, if you plug "NHL" into the DirecTV search engine, it will direct you first to the Center Ice package page. Based on personal experience, if you are a DirecTV subscriber and have not dug around enough on the plans page to find that their most expensive/extensive plans include NHL (and you don't want all the extra channels these packages offer), and you call to inquire about NHLN, you may get directed to purchase the Center Ice package and not advised that there are plans which include NHLN. This is more likely a flaw on DirecTV's part that their sales people did not know or did not look to see if any other channel packages included the NHLN without buying Center Ice.)
Commercials and Advertising
Now that advertising has been brought up, let's look at the NHL's efforts this year.
Hockey fans in general have a good sense of humor. They're very competitive and have an intense loyalty not just to their team but also to hockey's traditions. The best advertisements for the NHL — be it individual team spots or the league as a whole — have played on fan intensity, humor, and tradition.
This season, the NHL replaced the highly successful "History Will Be Made" campaign with the more obtuse "Because It's The Cup", which was designed to both resonate with established fans but also to draw in new fans.
The problem is that the commercials stunk.
On the storyboards there's no doubt that these concepts seemed to fit the bill. However, the execution left something to be desired — most of the "Because It's The Cup" ads sounded like they'd been recorded over somebody's cell phone.
The intent of these commercials seems to be that they're supposed to be like your buddy is confiding in you about how great hockey is. The main problem in these spots was that they conveyed little to none of the intense nail-biting energy and excitement that makes up the great sport of hockey.
In addition, two League-produced commercials particularly stand out because of the hockey fouls contained within. The first said it all with its title, "Two halftimes".
One of the most emphatic lines in the spot is the narrator saying, "Because there are two halftimes."
There are not two halftimes! Halftimes are for football! Hockey has two intermissions! Why would you spend time, money, and effort drawing fans into the sport, only to misinform them about the sport's terminology right off the bat?
The other commercial was an ad for Shop.NHL.com, the League's official store. In it, a stream of fans, with one jersey foul after another, parade across the screen. The music is great. The team diversity is quite nice. Hardcore hockey fans everywhere screamed and threw things at their TVs when it aired.
The NHL basically trolled its own fans with that commercial, but the intent of the ad was clearly to tell newer fans that they could be creative in their hockey appreciation.
An easy way to compare the success between the two ad campaigns is to search on YouTube for ad parodies. Although the #BecauseitstheCup hashtag gained traction on Twitter, there were few video parodies of the spots, unlike the popular "History Will Be Made" ads.
The NHL seemed to realize this at some point, and the later ads that rolled out during the playoffs felt more like a blend between the "History Will Be Made" style but had the dull voiceovers of the "Because It's The Cup" ads. Even the one ad that continued the feel of the "Cup Raise" and "No Words" series, "Boys", would have made more sense if it had shown players wildly celebrating and crying with unabashed joy to reflect the "It makes boys out of men" tag line instead of the sedate and quiet group photo moment.
There were a couple good NHL commercials along the way. One that stood out was the "For every gift, there's a home" ad, where a Detroit Red Wings chair rung the doorbell at several hockey fan houses, looking for the perfect home, and was turned away until it found a Detroit fan's home. It required no voiceover to convey its message, and it was funny.
Additionally, the Winter Classic ads such as "Rivalry" ("Brotherly love will be on hold") and "Song" (set to "The Hockey Song" music) were quite good and could appeal to newer fans while also drawing in established fans.
It's tough to walk that line when trying to draw in new fans, yet not bore or alienate long-term fans, and the NHL has shown it is capable of doing so. Unfortunately, this season they were a bit all over the map.
Report Card Final Grade: B-
With the threat of another lockout hanging over the past season, the NHL spent a lot of effort trying to draw in new fans, perhaps banking against any established fans who might be lost if another lockout occurs. Ultimately, it made the marketing efforts seem a bit disjointed and lackluster compared to previous years' campaigns.
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