Is the NHL failing to market correctly?

NHLHS writers David Strehle and Anthony Curatolo take a look at the NHL’s continued marketing strategy and the isolation of fans in certain cities. We were even able to grab the attention of one NHL player agent and get his insight on the subject.

There is a growing sentiment among hockey fans that the National Hockey League is spending far too much time and effort promoting only an exclusive group of players and teams.

And with this sentiment comes an ever-increasing dissatisfaction from NHL diehards, especially in markets that are practically ignored by the league.

And how nice of the league to choose this past week to provide even more ammunition for such an argument, as this article was already in the process of being drafted.

On the heels of the NHL’s announcement that there will be a new reality-type show that will air on HBO in December, which will chronicle the days and events leading up to the 2011 NHL Winter Classic.  Such a fantastic idea for exposure and getting the league and players names out in the mainstream, but instead hockey fans everywhere will once again be given more of the same.

As for the source of the fan’s frustrations, look no further than the first paragraph from the article:

Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are known for holding nothing back on the ice.  Come December, when HBO’s cameras start rolling and the two superstar captains take leading roles in a real-life documentary about the NHL’s best present-day rivalry, the world will find out how “The Kid” and “Ovi” prepare to go all out.”

There is absolutely no denying  that both Crosby and Ovechkin are two of the preeminent hockey talents in the world. Yet to think that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated during an NHL conference call Thursday September 21st, 2010, that this show would not be the “Sidney and Alex” show. With what was stated above, how can it NOT be?

As the closing paragraph in the article shows, there will be plenty of Crosby and Ovechkin presented in the documentary.

Ross Greenburg, the president of HBO Sports, called teaming with the NHL “a perfect fit.”

“The ’24/7′ franchise is fashioned on larger-than-life personalities, engaging storylines and unrestricted access,” Greenburg said in a statement. “With Sidney Crosby leading the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin leading the Capitals we have all the ingredients for a dynamic show that will take viewers deep inside professional hockey and set the stage for the Winter Classic.”

Twitter has become an excellent medium for which NHL fans are able to voice their opinions and while there was much excitement expressed, the backlash on the day of the announcement was severe.  Fans from many teams voiced their angst at the NHL’s narrow street of promotion, and even the fact that HBO Canada has no plans on showing the series to their Canadian fans.

We caught up with NHL player agent Scott Norton, founder and President of Norton Sports Management, and had a chance to ask him a few questions on the matter.  Norton represents an impressive stable of clients, including Los Angeles Kings captain, Dustin Brown.  As part of his marketing strategy for his own NHL clients, Norton finds that a social media outlet like Twitter can bring not only the day-to-day lives of NHL players to the fans, but also shows the players’ human sides.  These are areas that have, until recently, been very inaccessible for the average NHL supporter, who may be looking for more information on the very hockey players that they idolize.

Do you feel the NHL is doing a sufficient job of marketing it’s players?

Not at this time.  I believe that we are far behind the other 3 major sports (football, baseball and basketball) in our marketing, but I believe that everyone involved with our great support is responsible for that – beginning with the NHL offices in New York city.

There seems to be a central concentration by the NHL marketing department on just two or three players / teams to promote.  In your opinion, what could the league do to better promote it’s star players (outside of the usual couple)?

At Norton Sports Management, we have made an effort to first of all “brand” all of our clients, and then market them.  I believe that each and every player has marketability – obviously some much more than others.  The more that we market our product and players, the more fans we accumulate and ultimately, the more successful our sport becomes.

I believe the League needs to do a much better job at promoting all of the great athletes in the NHL, not just the star ones.  These are great guys with great stories to tell, and fans want to know more…

What are the benefits that the league could realize if they did increase the amount of players / teams that they gave significant exposure?

The bottom line is we all should want to grow this sport, and that is what an effort like this would do.  We will never achieve a large television contract like the other sports unless we do a better job from the ground up!

Do you see any downside to the compacting of the NHL’s collective energies into publicising such a small cache of players?

Yes, it severely limits the way that the average fan can relate to the players of the NHL.  Guys like Crosby and Ovechkin are great ambassadors for the NHL, but fans want more.  Not everyone can relate to the most skilled players in the game.  I have been told by many, many fans that they love learning more about the “Cam Janssens” of the world.

Do you perceive any negatives to the promotion of a larger stable of players?  Is there a chance that it could be counter-productive?

I do not see how this kind of effort could hurt the game.  In the end, it is up to the fans and the companies as to which players they choose to cheer for or align themselves with, but name one other sport that concentrates their marketing efforts on so few of its athletes.

Norton went on to add this:  I feel that hockey is the greatest sport in the world;  played by the greatest athletes and human beings.  I think we all need to embrace that and build from there.  The NHL, NHLPA, teams, agents, media and the players are all responsible for growing the game from where it is now.

And just like Norton points out, we need to embrace the greatest athletes in the world by showing them off to the entire world.  Yes, the NHL has opened the last few years in Europe to further grow it’s fanbase outside of North America but that is exactly where, as much as it is good, it is bad.

Here in the states, Hockey comes in below Baseball, Football (NFL), Basketball and even Nascar. As one of the four “major” sports leagues in the world, to not be part of the top viewed attractions of sports entertainment simply means that something has not digested properly. If this years Winter Classic and HBO special does not prove the errors in the NHLs marketing strategies, it seems that things are not purely put into focus on how to make the “league” and our fine game more attractive.

Of course, as mentioned numerous times on podcasts, talk shows, blog sites, and even within the main stream media, it is obvious that Crosby and Ovechkin are the two best talents in the game today, but there are plenty of other players who deserve just as much recognition.

What about the likes of Henrik Sedin, Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Toews, Zach Parise, Ryan Miller, Marian Gaborik, Rick Nash, and any top star(s) on the 28 other teams that are part of this fantastic league?  Sure, some have been cover boys on magazines or video games like Vincent Lecavalier or Henrik Lundqvist, again something that is more extensive then we shall make mention of here but we hope you understand where we are going with this idea.

Canadians represent their players and their country very well.  Here south of the border, it’s less likely that you will find an advertisement with a National Hockey League player as the focus of attention to sell said product. Derek Jeter, for instance, in New York is the poster boy and model candidate for marketing campaigns. Not Brandon Dubinsky, or Travis Zajac.  You might, if you are in New Jersey, catch a few with Martin Brodeur involved, but the minority is in play when it comes to hockey players and the NHL.

So not only is it an issue with the NHL itself failing to market correctly, it’s the entire league as a whole simply going unnoticed.

PITTSBURGH - JULY 27: Sidney Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Maxime Talbot of the Pittsburgh Penguins watch highlights of past Winter Classics at the 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic press conference on July 27, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

And speaking of the Winter Classic itself, there was a collective groan that arose from NHL fans everywhere (outside of Pittsburgh, that is) when it was announced that the Pittsburgh Penguins are being showcased – again – just three years after last appearing in Buffalo.

For one team out of a thirty club league to make an appearance again so soon has marketing failure written all over it.

Bettman continues to use the label “the model NHL franchise” when describing the Penguins, and why shouldn’t they be viewed that way?  On the verge of folding prior to the Mario Lemieux era and in danger of being relocated as recently as two years ago before the go ahead was given on the new CONSOL Energy Center, Pittsburgh ownership has used years of failures and high draft positions to rebuild their on-ice product into one of the powerhouse teams in the entire league.

For fans in Pittsburgh, there is much to be excited about these days.  The new arena, the 2011 NHL Winter Classic, the HBO series, and great expectations for the success of their Penguins for the upcoming season.

But how about fans in Minnesota, or Phoenix, or New York, or over twenty other NHL cities?  Bettman and company cannot blame them for feeling neglected, regarding not only their teams, but also the players on those teams.

When an organization promotes all of the assets at its disposal and exposes the wealth of talent it possesses, there is no doubt that it will flourish in the long run.

Maybe the NHL can put their collective efforts into better marketing its teams and players instead of getting ready for the coming labor war.  And maybe if the league enjoys the benefits of increased exposure and added revenues, a labor war can be avoided altogether.

Dave Strehle
NHLHS Philadelphia Flyers Correspondent
Twitter: @PhilaDAVEia

Anthony Curatolo
Twitter: @HockeyGuy_AC