SBD/March 14, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

Via Rail Becomes Latest Corporate Sponsor To Raise Concerns To NHL

Via Rail has been a longtime sponsor of the Canadiens and Senators
Via Rail, a longtime sponsor of the Canadiens and Senators, on Friday "shot off a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman complaining that the league's 'quick and ineffective ruling on the Pacioretty/Chara incident of last Tuesday is totally unacceptable,'" according to Simon Houpt of the GLOBE & MAIL. The letter, which "followed a similar missive by Air Canada," insisted the league "consider our concerns" at this week's GM meetings in Florida. Via Rail General Counsel & Secretary Yves Desjardins-Siciliano said that the company was "especially outraged by Bettman's dismissal of Air Canada's criticism on Thursday, in which Bettman made a veiled threat to take the league's business elsewhere after the airline called on the NHL to take immediate action to prevent further injuries." However, he added that the company "would not consider pulling its support." Desjardins-Siciliano: "We believe our sponsorship is what gives us a right to be critical and demand changes and more discipline in the way discipline is administered." Meanwhile, a senior marketing official who does business with the NHL said that his company is "watching the situation closely and, if the league does not take action" at the GM meetings to address the concerns, the company "expects to make its disapproval known at that point." The CBC also acknowledged that one of its "large hockey advertisers had expressed concern" (GLOBEANDMAIL.com, 3/13).

WITHIN THEIR RIGHTS? The CBC's Don Cherry during Saturday's "Hockey Night In Canada" said, "How about Via Rail? What a phony they are jumping on the bandwagon. And Air Canada, you should be ashamed of yourself. By the way, where are their corporate headquarters? We know where they are -- Montreal" (CP, 3/13). However, Fleishman-Hillard GM Bill Walker in a special to the TORONTO STAR wrote, "What Air Canada’s forceful letter to the NHL threatening to withdraw its sponsorship proved is that, while the NHL might not be responsive to its customer base, its sponsors truly are. In this social media era, marketers are closer to what their customers are feeling and thinking than ever before." Rather than a "dismissive 'we’ll find another airline,' and a thinly veiled shot at Air Canada’s service levels," Bettman "needs to be more responsive to his core constituency of Canadian hockey moms and dads, and Canadian hockey fans." If the NHL "continues to brush off these issues, it risks alienating a big part of its Canadian base of fans and sponsors at a time when both have more entertainment options than ever before" (TORONTO STAR, 3/13).

PIVOTAL MOMENT FOR BETTMAN: The GLOBE & MAIL's Bruce Dowbiggin writes, "Whether Bettman likes it or not, this is hockey's Dale Earnhardt moment, the time when the speed of the cars and the aggression of the drivers overwhelms the race track." No matter how "impulsive Air Canada’s media onslaught seemed, who wants a dead NHL player photographed lying in front of your corporate logo on the boards?" Bettman's "petulant response to the week's criticism, however, indicates he's still got the pedal to the floor and his fingers in his ears" (GLOBE & MAIL, 3/14). CBSSPORTS.com's Ray Ratto wrote, "There have been any number of moments where Bettman's leadership has been questioned/mocked/dismissed." But he "never loses his core support, and he never loses his chestiness." Bettman, who quietly agreed to a five-year extension in November, "not only doesn't duck a fight, he likes them." He "likes getting in front of the other guy's goal." The people whom he "needs to like him like him, and as long as they have his back, he's going to continue Bettman-ing." His "new strength, he has decided, is to be the hardest of hardnoses, to conciliate on nothing, to tell anyone who needs to hear the lesson to go pound salt for another five years" (CBSSPORTS.com, 3/11).
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