Marketing Misery: Why Does the NHL Fail at Selling its Sport?
Despite NHL commissioner Gary ‘Just Go Away, Gary’ Bettman’s best efforts to evolve the sport of hockey in the United States, he’s been about as successful as Michael Jordan’s baseball ‘career’.
He’s adamant about keeping sad-sack franchises like Columbus and Arizona toiling in their respective American cities, where citizens would rather be locked in a gas station bathroom than a hockey rink. To make the league’s popularity problems more troubling, Bettman’s right hand man, NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly, feels the league should market the sport with this philosophy:
“Our sport is the ultimate team sport. The players who play it, play it as a team and are somewhat uncomfortable with individual spotlights. I think we’ve learned that over time. So I think the focus—and I won’t disagree with you that coming out of the lockout in 2005, we had an opportunity with [Alex] Ovechkin and [Sidney] Crosby that the league hadn’t had in a long time and there definitely was a marketing focus on those two.
But I think since that time, we’ve learned that really what drives fans’ interests is really interest in the product. Our primary focus is and has to be the quality of the product on the ice every night and marketing the quality of the product on the ice every night. That involves a lot of individual stars, great players, but they are part of teams. I think we’ve come to recognize that and really feel that’s the best way to sell the sport.”
There’s a lot to take away from that lengthy quote, but for the interest of this marketing discussion, we’ll focus on the most telling element of the NHL’s marketing strategy: the idea that ‘fans don’t like individuals.’
Where the NHL Fails, but the NFL/NBA/MLB Succeed
Daly ironically delivered the NHL’s marketing ideology against individual greatness during this year’s Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony. You know, the annual event where retired players are recognized for their individual greatness.
One player inducted this year was Eric Lindros, a man whose ginormous size mirrored his big-time skill set. The polarizing figure refused to play for the team that drafted him, and refused to acknowledge human life on the ice; a six-foot-four, 240-pound wrecking machine that was talented enough to skate past two defenders, or straight through them.
Fans going to Flyers games in the 90’s would probably come to root on their home team – but they’d stay for the Lindros Show. Same deal with the HHOF induction; fans didn’t come to Toronto to see an ex-Flyer superstar inducted into the Hall, they came to see Eric Lindros inducted into the Hall.
And therein lies the major issue with the NHL – the persistence to market a ‘team sport’.
Why does the NHL revel in this perceived, unrivaled beauty of the team aspect in sport? Aren’t baseball, basketball, and football team sports too?
NFL marketing campaigns are covered in quarterbacks. The MLB promotes the game’s biggest sluggers and brightest stars all the time. And any NBA hype will feature a steady dose of the game’s superstars, even marketing them by their fan-friendly nicknames, like The King, PG13, Chef Curry, The Beard, or Durantula.
There’s a handful of good reasons the NHL is the continent’s seventh most popular sport, and this could be the most glaring mishap.
Individuals –> Stories –> Audience
Good marketing – and this becomes doubly true when it comes to sports marketing – is about telling a story. It doesn’t need to be particularly complicated; a simple story would actually be easier for fans to relate to. The marketing campaign formula of a hero + a goal + obstacles to overcome is tried and true – with the right protagonist and some luck, the audience will clutch the hero’s cape and come along for the journey.
The NHL is teeming with these stories. But, maybe because the game isn’t scripted and the hero doesn’t always triumph, or finds redemption, is what keeps the NHL away from telling its player’s stories? That premise is (another) tough sell, considering Under Armor’s Stephen Curry shoe campaign is built on Curry’s past failure.
Take one story the NHL can spin and run away with. New York Ranger’s goalie Henrik Lundqvist is one of the game’s biggest stars – he’s arguably been the best goalie in the world over the past decade, and is literally a part-time model and rock star who also owns his own restaurant. Having said that, he’s entering the latter half of his 30’s, and has yet to capture a championship. He came close once, but no one knows if he’ll get another shot – some say this year, with the Rangers doing surprisingly well, could be the last hurrah of his colourful career.
This is just one story gilded with marketing gold playing out right now – in the NHL’s biggest media market no less – that the league refuses to leverage.
Even if the Lundqvist story doesn’t do it for some people, maybe a campaign focused on Jarome Iginla’s quest for his first Cup would be more appealing, as he’s tried to carry bad teams to the penultimate goal for two decades. Or what about ‘Jumbo Joe’ Thornton, a guy trying to win his first Cup, for a GM he once told to keep his mouth shut (we paraphrased). And we haven’t even breached the game’s most lucrative marketing opportunities, like Toronto’s first-overall pick/franchise savior Auston Matthews, or the NHL’s 19-year-old scoring leader Connor McDavid.
What marketers can learn from the NHL’s failures
If you’re building a marketing campaign, or marketing story if you will, remember that a good storyteller embraces failure. They’re some of the best stories you can tell, especially if the person redeems themselves and conquers their letdown. And when those fruitful endings finally come to pass, it’s that much more impactful – as the old saying goes, winning means nothing if you don’t know what it feels like to lose.
Marketing individuals rather than the embodiment of a ‘team’ is easily relatable for fans (and customers), too. People can put themselves in the shoes of their idols, relating to their hardships and successes, delivering a specific message or mindset that’s unattainable with a general marketing ploy, like you would when leveraging a team. Looking at Under Armor’s Curry campaign again, there’s a big difference from ‘these shoes will make you a better player’ from ‘these shoes are what the two-time league MVP will wear as he tries to redeem a franchise that won a record 73 games, but ended the season with no ring.’ That’s something people can relate to. That’s an interesting story. And that can easily drive a successful marketing campaign.
This can apply to any marketing campaign, including those outside of sports. Brands big and small will employ storytelling whenever they can, because they understand the impact and value of the strategy. These marketing campaigns from Honey Bunches of Oats, Airbnb, and Gatorade show a wide array of industries parlaying individual anecdotes into wildly successful marketing initiatives.
When it comes to your marketing strategy, simply remember to avoid what the NHL does at all costs. This is a league where personality comes to die; P.K. Subban, who might be the game’s most beloved player, was traded because of his ‘personality’. Traded for a guy that’s the human equivalent to beige-coloured wallpaper, no less.
Don’t become the NHL of your industry. Don’t be afraid to market people and stories, because regardless of how good your product or service is, it’s that relatable connection that’ll drive your campaign’s success.
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