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A Hockey Manifesto: Marketing Is Everything (Part Two of Five)

Pamitha WeerasingheContributor IMay 31, 2010

CHICAGO - MAY 29:  Antti Niemi #31 of the Chicago Blackhawks looks on against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game One of the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the United Center on May 29, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Thank you to those who read and responded to Part One.  Even more thanks to those who were patient enough to wait for the remainder. 

Raise your hand if you could name more than one player who scored in Saturday’s Stanley Cup finals opener.  Anyone?  Bueller? 

Do not be ashamed if you are struggling to find an answer.  The usual suspects: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa or Mike Richards, would all have been incorrect.  Of the eleven goals scored in Game One, all but three came from players who are virtual unknowns to anyone outside of Philadelphia or Chicago.  This includes the game winning goal by a man named Kopecky. 

It is difficult for a casual fan to become excited about the Stanley Cup Finals if they are not familiar with the players competing on the ice.  So at the end of the day, it should come as no surprise that another season has gone without the league tapping into the long sought after “casual market.”

In the wake of an exciting Olympic Tournament, the National Hockey League did exactly what hockey fans predicted they would: fail to capitalize on the bump in popularity.  The fairy tale seemed to be coming true for the NHL when the entire world watched Sidney Crosby beat Ryan Miller to win the Gold for Team Canada.  After all, it was the sport’s biggest star, on the biggest stage, making an individual play to win the game. 

It did not hurt that Crosby had just led Pittsburgh to their first Stanley Cup win since another NHL Legend performed the same feat nearly two decades earlier.

Years of marketing “Sid the Kid” as the savior of the sport finally seemed to be paying off.  In truth, that goal may have been the worst thing that happened to the league, because it reinforced a current marketing strategy that has not been paying any dividends.  Saturday was a shining example of how the “Crosby-fixation” of the NHL is actually driving casual fans away.

Experts have debated as to why the NHL struggles to market their sport to casual fans.  Some believe the economics of the game prevent it from being accessible to younger kids.  After all, it is the only sport where the form of playing surface is the most important element.  Baseball is played virtually anywhere, as are football, basketball and soccer. 

Still others suggest that the sport is hard for the average fan to relate to; as it is not the type of sport championed by either end of the social spectrum.  There are even a few who are bold enough to suggest that the dominance by foreign-born players detracts from the National perception of the sport.

The reality is somewhere in the middle, but the marketing challenges facing the NHL are not so unique that the league cannot learn lessons from how other sports are able to grow their fan base.

The Problem With “Stars”

The failure in the current marketing strategy is that the NHL is attempting to sell the average consumer on the “star” nature of the sport. 

If this plan sounds familiar, it is because David Stern and the National Basketball Association wrote the book on this marketing strategy.  Every team has their own hero, the player who will score the most points, be the most exciting on the court, and who the entire town will pin their championship hopes upon. 

If you were to go through every team in the NBA, you could identify precisely who that player is.

Los Angeles—Kobe Bryant

Oklahoma City—Kevin Durant

Orlando—Dwight Howard

Dallas—Dirk Nowitzki

Miami—Dwayne Wade

Cleveland—Lebron James

…and so on.

Without fail, every team in the league has their star player, and the NBA does a fantastic job marketing their sport through their individual all-star efforts. 

The reason they are so successful is partly because basketball is the type of sport where one star can have a significant outcome on the game. 

It is hypothetically possible for one player to attempt every shot for his team in a game; and it is equally possible for that one player to make every shot he attempts.  This rarely happens, but it has been done: Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in one game and recently Kobe Bryant scored 81.

The NHL is doomed to failure when employing this marketing strategy because the nature of their sport does not feed into the culture of having a singular “star” player the way it does in basketball.  Game One was a fantastic example of that.

When a casual fan tunes in to watch a highly anticipated game featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals, they are likely doing so because commercials for the game tout Sidney Crosby as the best player in hockey and Alexander Ovechkin as the most exciting.  But when one fails to register a shot on goal and the other has a costly turnover resulting in a loss, what then does the casual fan think?

Lebron James and Kobe Bryant square off in an identical matchup.  What are the immediate differences?  They are on the floor for nearly the entire game.  Even if they miss shots, they are always present and the viewer cannot help but watch these “stars” collide.

This “star” marketing works because casual fans can watch a basketball game and immediately see the impact any player has on the game.  In a matter of minutes you could see a clutch three-pointer, a highlight dunk, or an impact block that will change how the game ends.

The nature of Hockey is such that “star” marketing simply will not work to draw in the casual fan.  The more effective approach would be to follow in the footsteps of the national pastime. 

Baseball as a Template

Of all the major sports in America, Baseball and Hockey share the most integral component not found in the others: a player designated to prevent the opposing team from scoring.

Major League Baseball has endured through some of the most challenging scandals in sports but has remained popular in large part through their ability to sell their game to an increasingly diverse fan base.  Fundamentally, the way Baseball markets their stars is similar to the NBA but the nature of the sports forces a focus on the player and their position, not just the player himself. 

Of particular relevance to the NHL is how Baseball markets their pitchers.  The start of every baseball game begins with the same question: who is pitching.  Without the pitcher, there would be no strikeouts, no run production, no double plays and no home runs.  The pitcher begins everything in baseball and yet is the one position where the entire object is to prevent any action at all.

NHL Goalies perform the exact same duty in a very different venue.  The one constant during the season is that every NHL game will be played with a goaltender in net. 

This may seem like a very simple observation, but it is one that the NHL has constantly overlooked as a means to bring in new fans.  Goaltenders provide the perfect vehicle for a Baseball-type marketing strategy that will narrow the focus of casual fans on some of the most exciting action in Hockey.

Baseball has their offensive superstars as well: Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, Ryan Howard and Alex Rodriguez.  However, they run the risk of striking out in every at bat much in the same way a hockey player may not figure in the final score of a game.  And there is always a pitcher recording those outs and there is always a goalie making those saves. 

The NHL should start marketing their goaltenders as stars of their sport as a foundation to further promote their offensive standouts.

The Men in Net

Beyond their consistent position on the ice, goalies provide a much more attractive player model to market Hockey as a dynamic and exciting sport.  Every goaltender is required to wear a mask and typically each mask is decorated in a unique manner specific to the player.  Some fans may remember the Statue of Liberty on the mask of Mike Richter, the Devils tail on the mask of Martin Brodeur or the bumblebee on the mask of John Vanbiesbrouck. 

These are the types of defining characteristics that the NHL can begin to market the unique personalities of the players between the pipes.  These masks become the surrogate faces of the goaltender, who very literally wear their personality in front of them as they sacrifice their body to prevent shots from going in.

More importantly, goalies are always on the ice and are always involved in the play.  While a star offensive player may have a poor night and not even register an assist, the goaltender will always be challenged and always attempt to make astonishing saves seem routine. 

Though they may not always succeed, the casual fan will immediately be able to recognize who they are and understand what they are tasked to do: stop the puck.

By focusing on the goalie, the casual fan will also be able to observe the area on the ice where all the action occurs.  Instead of being frustrated at not seeing the puck as it moves between players, viewers can follow a goalie's movement as they track the puck and watch their reaction. 

Literally, fans will begin to train their eyes to follow the action based on initially watching how goaltenders respond to traffic in front of them and shots on goal.

Finally, a goaltender will set the foundation for an increased appreciation for offensive superstars. 

What made the Olympics particularly engaging for American fans was their connection with Ryan Miller and the effort he was giving in net to keep pushing Team USA towards the Gold medal.  Casual fans knew that Miller was playing great and to beat him would take a singular effort by an equally great skater, and that was precisely what happened. 

In one area where the NHL may effectively borrow from the NBA, is the idea that stars benefit from the defeat of other stars.  Crosby is a great player not because he scores goals against goaltenders who do not belong in the NHL, but because he does it against the greatest competition in the world. 

By educating fans on the players he scores against, the appreciation for his (and any other players) ability will increase.

If you would like to join the discussion, or have opinions on what you have just read, or have suggestions for new pieces, comment below and I promise a response to each of you.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

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