SBJ/December 11 - 17, 2006/This Weeks News

NHL puts money on young stars

Billed as “Sid the Kid” vs. “Alexander the Great,” tonight’s nationally televised game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins highlights the NHL’s new marketing strategy.

Sidney Crosby, the Penguins’ 19-year-old center, who’s considered a potential heir to “The Great One,” and Alexander Ovechkin, the Capitals’ 21-year-old left winger, will meet on national TV for the first time. That brings together two of the faces from this year’s NHL marketing campaign, which is designed to highlight individual stars.

A lot of people still don’t know the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Sidney
Crosby (left) and Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin,
something the NHL is trying to change. The two meet on national
TV for the first time tonight.

Problem is, according to surveys, not many people know who Crosby and Ovechkin are, despite their being the hockey equivalent of LeBron and Carmelo — or potentially this generation’s Gretzky and Lemieux.

Neither Crosby nor Ovechkin are included on the Davie-Brown Index or in e-Poll surveys, which test the public’s awareness level of athletes. Only Crosby is included in Sports Q surveys, which determine the appeal of an athlete, and his most recent Q Score was a 7 with an awareness level of 29 percent.

 The average score for sports figures is 16 with 47 percent awareness, according to Marketing Evaluations Inc., which conducts the surveys. Brett Favre leads current football players with a Q Score of 35, while Dwyane Wade leads current basketball players with a 31.

“Unless you’re a rabid fan, you don’t know who these players are, and (the NHL) is tough to find on TV,” said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations. “It’s really off the radar.”

Sports marketing experts, though, say the NHL is taking the right approach by showcasing the two players in hopes of attracting fringe fans.

“Any league, any team needs to create a character that people can relate to,” said Bill Glenn, vice president of The Marketing Arm. “The one difference they are facing is they’re still going uphill in trying to get people from a fan perspective immersed in the league. Unless they get people to identify with the names and faces, it will be tough for them to become invested.”

Added Tom George, senior marketing officer for athletes and personalities at Octagon: “You have to create some star appeal. Because of the [lockout], because of the media saturation, because of the struggles on TV, they’ve got to promote, promote, promote.”

The league has worked to leverage the two young stars by promoting them in media outside sports. Crosby has been featured in Vanity Fair and on “Entertainment Tonight,” while Ovechkin has been in Men’s Fitness and on the cover of the Washington Post Magazine.

“To the credit of the NHL, they’ve tried to find opportunities outside of traditional media coverage and have succeeded,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “But, it’s still a work in progress.”

Despite that, the players appear to be gaining some traction. Gatorade, which signed a new sponsorship with the NHL this summer, is looking to incorporate hockey players into future advertising campaigns and has expressed interest in working with Crosby and Ovechkin.

The two would become part of a campaign featuring the rest of the Gatorade family, which includes Wade and Peyton Manning, said Jeff Urban, Gatorade’s director of sports marketing.

“These will be the guys we focus on in the short term,” Urban said. “We think the way the game’s played, they capture the imagination. And one of the best ways to market the NHL is to find athletes who transcend the sport and capture the eyes of people who are watching — our consumers.”

The league hopes that by continuing to emphasize Ovechkin and Crosby in its marketing and public relations efforts, other brands such as Gatorade will also promote them, said NHL Enterprises President Ed Horne.

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