Thursday, April 19, 2007

Ongoing case study in how not to sell hockey

Short people got no reason....

Nearly every day now on you'll find features on second-tier celebrities as devout hockey fans and scenes of same depicted in special moments with the Stanley Cup.

My wife and oldest watch some weekly drama about brothers and sisters. I think it has Sally Field in it. I can't deny the fact that they like her! They like her! And they really, really love her show. But I don't. I'm a devout hockey fan. They are not. So the NHL does a Web feature on cast members from this show and the Stanley Cup? Are they trying to broaden their appeal to the Grey's Anatomy-Fan demographic? A demo that will probably never embrace hockey? Yeah, yeah, I know there are a couple of you female hockey blogger types out there who probably live in both worlds, but you are the few, the proud..and you probably joined the NHL choir when Patrick Dempsey was just that dorky kid in Can't Buy Me Love (filmed in Tucson).

The other day, the "Frozen Moment" image was Christie Brinkley in an Islanders sweater. Christy Brinkley was turbo-hot before the cell phone, but ravages of time and failed marriages to Billy Joel and some pedophile architect in Colorado don't make her much of an appealing hockey spokesmodel to me. I really have no interest in what she would blog about...unless she were to drop a couple of "I remember the night Billy got so drunk he..." re-sets into her posts.

So how would NHL VP of Marketing, Me, market this sport?

1. Sell the stars, their unbelievable speed and athleticism, and their accessibility to us. I hearken back to that old Kovalchuk/Naslund ad. That ad was way cool and the focus was on the things I just listed. They climbed walls, whacked pucks out of mid air, and cinematically moved among us-the regular people-throughout their mad chase. Peter Forsberg lounging in a couple's bed or Sidney Crosby hiding in a hotel shower is just not the same. And Joe Thornton buttering toast? Hello!?! All those ads, except the ones with the Sedins and OV8, make me want to hurl. And these two only work because they were truly funny.

Fact is, NHLers are not just like you and me. The league should trumpet la différence instead of downplaying it. NHL hockey players can take and dish out unbelievable levels of pain. They blast around the ice at Warp Factor Eight and can still catch their breath in 15 seconds. They can deflect 100 mph slapshots thru tiny and moving five-holes. They can see through a tangled forest of sticks, legs and bodies well enough to launch a saucer a pass to a compadre pinching from the backside seconds before they get crushed by that 230 lb defenseman closing at flank speed.

Yes, these NHL stars are very different human beings, but unlike NBA stars and New York Yankees, they still mix with us regular folk. They drive their kids to school, take their wives to a local restaurant with no entourage, play street hockey in the neighborhood and get their heads shaved for charity.

I say leverage the fascinating tension between an NHL star's athletic exceptionality and their earthy sameness.

2. Invest heavily in building a grassroots hockey culture where it currently does not exist. I'm talking relationship and experience marketing. Clubs like the Hurricanes who sponsor extensive youth hockey programs are putting their resources in the right place. One of the things I've enjoyed while watching the Rangers dismantle the Thrash (as if that wasn't intoxicating enough) has been the highlight snips of the pee-wee hockey players in their between period scrums. Very smart Rangers media. We need more hockey moms and less soccer moms.

I say teach folks to love the game first and the loyalty (read $$season tix$$) will follow.

But no fundamental shift in sports culture happens over night...unless it's sole focus is on violence. Warm weather hockey towns get slagged all the time by Nor' Easters where hockey has been part of the culture for generations. Hockey was bigger at my high school in Connecticut than football. It was that way in 1980 (pre-Miracle on Ice), and it's probably still that way today. It took time for that culture to develop, but the snobs out there don't, or won't, acknowledge that it will take time for the sport to grow down south and out west.

Hockey will succeed if the league leverages the game's core strengths. Manufactured linkage to a series of pop culture icons da jour is not leveraging a core strength. It's false, shallow and dumb. Please God don't let some NHL headquarters marketing intern take a call from Paris Hilton's agent between now and the middle of June.

Speaking of the Shaw-skank Redemption (thanks Dennis Miller), I don't care if the actor who played Nuke LaLoosh is a hockey fan. Matter of fact it bums me out. The guy's a tool. But if Clint Eastwood (who I actually ran into last Thursday night at a Japanese restaurant in Palm Springs) or Dennis Haysbert were to publicly pronounce their love for that would be cool. It wouldn't make me more of a hockey fan, but I would feel some superficial sense of a bond with actual mensch celebrities.

Speaking of LaLoosh, I think selling hockey is a lot like partisan politics. You have to keep the base happy before you can think about expanding the tent. I am the base and I am not happy. I say NHL marketing and their Madison Avenue Ad gurus jumped off the "keep it real" train way too early for the second straight year. It's still time to focus on a "tastes great/less filling" approach, but I guess the NHL's ad geniuses can't be bothered with that sort of stuff.

Last season Cuba Gooding and Kid Rock kept popping up for dopey between period interviews. Each time, I felt the urge to throw up in my mouth. Unfortunately, I expect more of the same this spring.


magnolia_mer said...


Word, word and WORD!

Glad you're back.

CasonBlog said...

Inspiraton went on holiday for about two weeks. I think it's back. Thanks for the kind words.

probes101 said...

Hi Cason,

Stumbled across your blog after a Google Alert for "Sport Marketing". I am a complete hockey novice, but think you make some great points.

It may sound crazy, but I think hockey is in a similar situation to that of MMA/UFC (with regards to sport marketing). Both sports need to educate potential fans about the sport, and promote the dedication/athleticsm/etc that athletes need to posses in order to play at the top level.

Also totally agree with the point that this needs to be established to the young fan base (essential to the future of any sport.)

Why not also increase and promote the entertainment aspect of the sport? When my brother visited the States a few months back (New York) he took in a hockey game (admittedly because the basketball team were playing away). He was impressed by the entertainment value of the sport, despite knowing next to nothing about rules/teams etc.

Final question; bearing in mind the comparison with the fight sports, would hockey benefit from a 'reality TV' style show, along the lines of The Contender or The Ultimate Fighter? For UFC at least, this was a great way to promote the sport among a different demographic, and allow a new audience to be educated on the sport, and its athletes.

Great post.


CasonBlog said...

I think UFC has the advantage of being fresh and uber voilent - in a chivalrous sort of way. Hockey has elements of chivalry too, but folks outside the culture don't see, or don't want to see, that element.

I like the idea of a reality-based approach to marketing the sport. The fact that hockey players are more firmly connected to our reality is one of the compelling things about the sport. I'm not sure how to package it without making it look pandering and phony.

Great site and insight, Probie. Thanks for joining this dicussion.