SBJ/February 27 - March 5, 2006/This Weeks News

NHL’s front line completed by marketing vets

The NHL completed an internal reorganization last week by adding two top marketing executives, bringing consumer branding expertise to the league’s senior management for the first time.

New NHL exec Mike LaBroad sees players
as the league’s “hidden gem.”
Mike LaBroad, a 23-year Anheuser-Busch veteran who spent the last three years as senior vice president of marketing for the rapidly growing Bass Pro Shops chain, was named the league’s first chief marketing officer last week. He will report to NHL Enterprises President Ed Horne.

The week before, former LPGA chief marketing officer Karen Durkin was named the NHL’s executive vice president, communications and brand strategy. Durkin will oversee all of the league’s public and media relations, and report directly to NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman in that capacity. She’ll also be responsible for the league’s brand strategy, reporting to Horne in that area.

The league originally set out to hire just one person in the CMO role, contacting nearly 400 potential candidates through a search firm, and interviewing a short list of 10. As the process continued, the decision was made to hire both Durkin and LaBroad, and add public and media relations under Durkin.

“I think the league felt they had never had a top-flight consumer marketer,” said Len Perna of Turnkey Sports & Entertainment, which handled the search. “They had other types of marketers but never a great consumer branding person. That’s what we set out to find, and we found two.”

Major professional sports leagues generally do not have consumer marketing executives at the upper management level, as most employees with “marketing” in their title are actually in sponsorship sales. LaBroad will be the only person at one of the four major pro leagues with the title of chief marketing officer. Steve Phelps, head of sponsorship sales at NASCAR, also has that title following a promotion this month.

The NHL has clearly made marketing a priority since coming out of its yearlong lockout, hiring companies such as the William Morris Agency to place NHL products in television shows and movies, and unleashing its first major television ad campaign in nearly a decade.

“We clearly have come back very strong in the marketplace, and I think all the measurements reflect that,” said Horne, referring to the league’s all-time high attendance. “What we’re doing now is putting forth additional resources to accelerate that momentum.”

The challenge that still faces the league is getting people to watch on national television, as the Arena Football League has drawn higher ratings on NBC than the NHL this season, and OLN has been attracting less than half the viewers for its NHL telecasts than ESPN did in previous years.

LaBroad indicated that he believes growth will come from attracting new fans to the sport, and the best way to do that is to bring a higher profile to the players.

“I think the hidden gem in the NHL is the players,” he said.

LaBroad was the brand manager for Bud Ice when it was the official beer of the NHL, and had responsibility for all the Anheuser-Busch beer brands during his tenure at the company. At one time he also served as vice president of marketing for Anheuser-Busch’s theme parks division, handling marketing for Busch Gardens and Sea World.

Durkin spent three years at the Cohn & Wolfe public relations firm before she joined the LPGA in 1995, where she was responsible for its “These Girls Rock” branding campaign.

Horne said the difference in Durkin and LaBroad’s role is that Durkin will be more responsible for creating a “holistic” brand strategy and making sure it is consistent across the entire league, while LaBroad will be charged with execution and managing the league’s relationship with advertising and marketing agencies, while also overseeing the league’s fan development and creative services department.

The addition of the two new executives makes the NHL’s upper management reorganization largely complete, although the league is still nowhere near pre-lockout staffing levels.

Some reshuffling stemmed from the spring 2005 departure of chief operating officer Jon Litner, who left to head the New York Mets-owned regional sports channel and was not replaced. Litner had been in charge of NHL Enterprises, public relations, broadcasting, and the television and media ventures division.

Now, Horne reports directly to Bettman as president of Enterprises. Durkin will oversee public relations, with the head of that department, Bernadette Mansur, promoted to senior vice president and reporting to Durkin.

Doug Perlman, who headed television and media ventures, now also has broadcasting and programming and all television-related activity under his charge, reporting to deputy commissioner Bill Daly. Group vice president and managing director of NHL International Ken Yaffe, who also reports to Daly, added responsibility for the league’s events department, replacing veteran executive Frank Supovitz, who moved to the NFL.

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