SBJ/September 30 - October 6, 2002/Special Report

Deal with Sun promotes NHL and technology

The NHL wanted to take care of its fans, which it believes are the most computer-literate among followers of the four major team sports. Sun Microsystems wanted to show off its ability to use technology to build a brand.

Ten months into their relationship, Sun and the NHL said their marketing and technology partnership is blooming but still a work in progress. For its part, Sun has spent the off-season rebuilding's infrastructure to better serve fans who want video highlights and other real-time features.

"I think we're past the age where it was, 'Hey, let's go create a Web site and try to create a brand,'" said Hal Stern, a chief architect with Sun. "These guys have a 100-year-old brand. They want to extend it via technology."

Sun also has been designing a section to the site called Inside the Net, where prospective clients of the Silicon Valley company can check out its technological prowess.

"We invite our customers to come see what we're doing," Stern said. "It's very much living proof of what we can do with the technology and what hockey is doing with the technology."

The NHL chose Sun to power the league's Web site in January, not long after ending an association with IBM. The league said it was seeking both a marketing and technological ally to replace IBM, which held an equity stake and shared control of the site. Sun is a league sponsor and pays for marketing rights while the NHL purchases technology from Sun.

"We made a decision to take control over that, to have our own destiny where we were going with," said Ed Horne, president of NHL Enterprises LP.

Financial terms of the three-year deal have not been disclosed, though Horne said each company is a customer of the other. The NHL takes full advantage of Sun's vast technology with Sun paying for marketing rights that it uses to entice prospective customers.

This summer, Sun technology was prevalent on the floor of the league's entry draft in Toronto. General managers and scouting staffs fed their selections into a computer rather than just writing a name on a card and taking it to league officials.

The league needs the Web site in its effort to increase awareness, in part because Horne said the NHL does not get nearly the same media coverage as the other major team sports.

"We don't think traditional media has served hockey as well as it should be served," Horne said. "This [] is the place for passionate as well as casual fans to have unfiltered access to all information on the NHL and professional hockey that you need."

The NHL's record in newer Southern and Western markets has been spotty, but there is little question the league has a committed core following. During last spring's Stanley Cup Finals, Sun worked with the Carolina Hurricanes to create a wireless network that allowed fans to order food and merchandise or access information from their cell phone.

Horne points to the 3 million-plus visitors each month to, up some 50 percent in one year and good for No. 8 among sports Web sites in the world, according to research by netScore, an Internet traffic measurement service. And, much like the composition of NHL rosters, about one-third of those Web users are from outside this continent.

The league touts its fans as the most computer literate and first in PC ownership among followers of major team sports. Aligning with Sun, then, gives the NHL the necessary platform when it comes to filling the fan's demand for real-time and video accessories.

"There has always been a demand," Horne said. "Now there is the ability to be able to further entrench fans through stats and bring new fans in. It's an important component in trying to market the game on a long-term basis."

Rick Maloney writes for Business First of Buffalo.

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