SBD/March 11, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Bettman Unfazed By Air Canada's Threat To Pull Sponsorships From NHL

Maple Leafs, Flames among teams with charter arrangements with Air Canada
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is "unfazed by Air Canada's threat to take its millions in NHL sponsorship elsewhere," and he "warned teams might choose to fly with another airline," according to Paul Koring of the GLOBE & MAIL. Bettman, when asked if he took Air Canada's "threat to pull sponsorship money seriously," responded, "Air Canada is a great brand as is the National Hockey League and if they decide that they need to do other things with their sponsorship dollars, that’s their prerogative." He added, "It is the prerogative of our clubs that fly on Air Canada to make other arrangements if they don’t think Air Canada is giving them the appropriate level of service." Koring notes all six Canadian NHL clubs "have charter arrangements with Air Canada," as do "several U.S.-based teams." In the wake of Canadiens LW Max Pacioretty being injured by a hit from Bruins D Zdeno Chara, Air Canada in a letter Wednesday "demanded the NHL to do more to prevent life-threatening injuries and combat the spate of concussions that have felled players this season." Meanwhile, Bettman "staunchly backed the league decision" not to suspend Chara for the hit. Bettman said, "The people in the game that I have heard from, almost to a person, and I will exclude the two clubs involved, believe it was handled appropriately. Our hockey operations people are extraordinarily comfortable with the decision that they made" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/11). While the contractual details of Air Canada’s sponsorship deals with NHL clubs are confidential, a source "marks the annual contributions" at C$1.5-2M in Toronto, where the airline has the naming rights for the Maple Leafs’ home rink, about C$1M each in Vancouver and Montreal and between C$500,000-750,000 in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa (TORONTO STAR, 3/11).

AIRLINE OUT OF LINE? Versus' Jeremy Roenick said, "I love the way that Gary Bettman handled this. There is no reason (for) Air Canada to come up and threaten the National Hockey League. Do your thing, take care of your planes. Make sure your planes fly and land, and Gary Bettman will take care of the National Hockey League. There is no need for this kind of threat." Versus' Billy Jaffe: "They can pick and choose -- that's their right -- who they want to sponsor. My guess is, though, they're probably sponsoring some boxing matches, some MMA stuff, some football. ... Air Canada is not the moral police for what is right and wrong in the National Hockey League. I don't know who gave them the power in Canada to step up and say that" ("NHL Overtime," Versus, 3/10).'s Scott Burnside wrote Air Canada "should be ashamed of themselves. In many ways, it merely reinforces the notion that Canada is a small, backwards little country with an unnatural affection for a game."'s Pierre LeBrun added, "You would think the airline would be more concerned about getting its own house in order before poking its nose in the NHL's affairs" (, 3/10). ESPN's Tony Kornheiser said, "The first thing I would do before I had any comment on it is I'd try to go out and find somebody to take the naming rights on that Toronto arena and sponsor my league. Then I would tell Air Canada to go scratch, if that's what they want, because I think that Air Canada makes this deal with the NHL because it helps them a lot in Canada" ("PTI," ESPN, 3/10).'s Jackie MacMullan: "You can't have your sponsors run your league. If Gary Bettman truly is concerned about the health and welfare of his players, then make your own rules. Don't have someone else have you do it" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 3/10). But the GLOBE & MAIL's Bruce Dowbiggin wrote of Bettman's response to Air Canada, "As a threat, it was as subtle as a sledgehammer. And no word whether other sponsors feel a misplaced word would win them a similar rebuke" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/11).

: The GLOBE & MAIL's Houpt, Jang & Krashinsky noted, "Perhaps with an eye to the NHL’s notoriously strong control over its image -- the league fines marketing partners who speak publicly without prior authorization -- other sponsors quietly refused comment on the matter." Labatt and Visa Canada both said that they "do not involve themselves in the administration of their sports partners," while PepsiCo said that it had "no plans to alter its sponsorship of the league or the players’ association." BCE Inc., which is a marketing partner of the NHL and holds a minority stake in the Canadiens as well as sponsoring the Bell Centre, "expressed concerns but supported the league" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/11). In Toronto, Robert Cribb notes Tim Hortons, whose television ads feature concussed Penguins C Sidney Crosby, issued a statement encouraging the NHL, teams, GMs and the NHLPA "to continue to work towards addressing concerns with head injuries." Several other major NHL sponsors -- including Kraft, LG, Scotiabank, Gatorade and Enterprise -- said that they "had no plans to discontinue their sponsorship relationships with the league, although even some of them expressed concerns" (TORONTO STAR, 3/11). Molson Coors, which last month announced a seven-year sponsorship with the league, said it is "concerned about hockey safety but comfortable leaving the decision-making to the NHL." Molson Coors Dir of PR Marie-Hélène Lagac said, "As a sponsor, we feel it’s not really our role to get involved in the business and day-to-day decisions of hockey. As fans of the game, however, we are concerned about safety issues and we support any efforts by all involved to improve the safety of the players" (Montreal GAZETTE, 3/11). The GLOBE & MAIL's Michael Babad wrote, "I wonder how long it will take for other sponsors to follow the lead of Air Canada. ... I suspect it won't be long" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/11).

IMAGE PROBLEM: The GLOBE & MAIL's Houpt, Jang & Krashinsky note the "issue has cropped up at an awkward moment for the league as it continues a push to reposition itself as a family-friendly sport." The NHL in late January "unveiled a campaign with the Huggies diaper brand to help raise funds for underprivileged families, while last month some of its current and former stars were used in a campaign by the personal hygiene brand Dove Men + Care." But that image "has suffered as the players themselves have fallen prey to concussions and other injuries." Laval Univ. sports marketing professor André Richelieu: "Right now, the brand image and brand identity of the NHL is pretty much nurtured by violence" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/11). Univ. of Toronto sports marketing professor Richard Powers said that even if there "isn’t broad sponsorship mutiny in the short term, other forces could line up against the league," including "federal and provincial governments." Police in Quebec Thursday announced that they are "investigating" Chara's hit. Powers: "It really hurts the brand. And brand is everything. That’s what the NHL is selling. Anything that detracts from the value of that brand is an issue" (TORONTO STAR, 3/11).
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