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NHL Back: Do the Numbers Add Up for Sponsors and Fans?

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

January 11, 2013

On Sunday, the National Hockey League ended a four-month, 113-day, and many hundreds of millions of dollars lockout. An abbreviated 48-game season is tentatively scheduled to begin on January 19, providing the last of the numbers are run and training camps open as expected this weekend.

Excepting diehard hockey fans—who, like diehard fans of any sport, will return to the rink no matter how badly they’ve been mistreated by greedy owners and players associations—the NHL has a slick battle on its thickly gloved hands as it prepares to take the ice once again. The first golden rule of brand building is creating trust among your constituents. In the wake of its third lockout in a generation, it’s not the calculus of hockey-related revenue, nor pension plans, nor a salary cap that’s at stake in 2013, but rather the NHL’s reputation with its two most important stakeholders: sponsors and fans.

After moving much of their NHL marketing budgets to other properties, sponsors and marketers are now reevaluating plans for the abbreviated season, wary all the while of potential consumer backlash against anything tied to hockey. In Canada, Kraft Foods, after canceling its popular “Hockeyville” promotion in November, committed to a new partnership with TSN called Kraft Hockey Goes On, rewarding hockey-related volunteerism. Now that the season is back, according to the Globe & Mail, Kraft will resume its advertising on CBC’S “Hockey Night in Canada,” though without its normal Hockeyville promotion or in fact any hockey-themed ads at all. The packaged foods giant will at season’s compare consumer reaction to the Hockey Goes On promo to Hockeyville in order to best determine how to invest its marketing dollars in the future. In this instance, the lockout unexpectedly provided a living laboratory for marketing innovation.

In the U.S., McDonald’s had plans to be a key NHL sponsor this season, with ads tied to the Winter Classic, the NHL All-Star Game, and other marquee events. After the lockout began, it signed a two-year national deal with the NFL instead—though regionally, the Golden Arches just became a presenting sponsor of the big market Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings.

If a team really wants to engage its fans, it wins. But if that isn’t working out, conventional wisdom dictates that if all else fails, you go out of your way not to disappoint them. And no matter how any sports league tries to reward its fans, strikes and lockouts demolish loyalty..

“The new deal is supposed to be in line with the NFL and NBA contracts, but, unfortunately, the same can’t be said about how the NHL brand meets fan expectations,” says Robert Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, a consumer engagement measurement firm. League by league assessments of the degree to which the brand is able to meet fans’ expectations collected last week by Passikoff’s firm are as follows:

NFL 88%
MLB 85%
NBA 83%
NHL 72%*

* Which means that the NHL meets expectations 72% of the time. If this number seems high, Passikoff explains, it’s a reflection of low fan expectations to begin with.
When you examine the data, it really does seem as if NHL fans are not completely put out by the league’s all-too-frequent work stoppages. Sarah Spain of ESPNW puts it well. “The entire 2004-05 NHL season was lost to a lockout and the next year the league drew 20,854,169 fans—nearly 500,000 more than it drew the year before,” she notes. “Attendance has gone up in each of the seasons since, with 2011-12 drawing a record 21,648,121 fans. Hockey fans will always come back.”

Indeed, the San Jose Sharks had fewer than 100 season ticket holders cancel their tickets during the lockout, according to the franchise, and most other NHL teams are reporting the same.

But that’s not stopping most teams from offering fans additional perks for 2013. The Pittsburgh Penguins are offering some free concession items and half off all merchandise at "PensGear" stores for the team’s first four home games of the season at Consol Energy Center. The team will also hold a week’s worth of contests for tickets, road trip packages, and autographed jerseys on their website and via social media.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are tiptoeing one step further onto the thin ice of fan acceptance post-lockout. According to the Sporting News, the Lightning are offering 200 $200 season ticket packages for the shortened season’s 24 home games.

In most arenas, you can’t even get a frosty mug of beer for the $8.33 this deal averages out per game. Maybe some good will come to the average hockey fan from the CBA’s complicated mathematics, after all.

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Beyond the Scoreboard
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
Beyond the Scoreboard eBook
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
Beyond the Scoreboard: Chapter 1. The Mega-Master Super Series XLXL eBook chapter

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