SBJ/20080623/Marketing/Sponsorship

Buoyant NHL eager to start building business on its buzz

The NHL brought together its business partners in Toronto just two weeks ago after a postseason playoff run that left the league with the most buzz and its highest TV ratings in years. Sponsors, broadcasters and licensees that assembled for the NHL Business Summit agreed that the league has more momentum than at any time since the lockout, which canceled the 2004-05 season, and perhaps since the New York Rangers ended their 54-year drought with a Stanley Cup championship in 1994.

“There is a buzz, you can feel it,” said Dick Pope, chairman and CEO of hard-goods licensee WinCraft. “They’ve got the right people in place now [at the league] doing the right things. We can argue about whether it’s that or having teams from great hockey markets like Detroit in the Finals that made the playoffs work so well, but the truth is, it’s a little of both.”

The league is also feeling buoyant and hopes it has a potion to juice sales.

“I have never been more bullish on the league,” an ebullient Commissioner Gary Bettman told the audience of about 75 partners. Bettman has been commissioner since 1993, so that’s quite a statement.

“We’ve got the mojo,” says the
NHL’s John Collins, and now
it’s time to work with it.

Using vernacular familiar to any sports fan, John Collins, the NHL’s senior executive vice president of business and media, said: “We’ve got the mojo; now we’ve got to show we can do something with it. Pepsi knows how to sell soda, we need to convince people we know how to sell hockey on a national basis, and I think we are starting to do that.’’

EXPANDING THE ROSTER: Doing “something” as Collins put it, would mean beefing up the NHL’s corporate sponsor roster domestically. It’s beefed up some now with the likes of Scotiabank, Bridgestone and Ticketmaster, which have been added in the past year. However, the absence of Dodge from the summit confirmed to us what we’d surmised already: The automaker is driving away from its NHL sponsorship after 13 years.

League sales executives seemed less than concerned with the exit, saying they were in talks with several auto manufacturers. Agency sources tell us Honda is a prime candidate, which would make it the first foreign auto nameplate with an NHL corporate sponsorship and mean it would follow fellow Japanese company Bridgestone as an NHL corporate patron.

Honda already has a prime NHL asset in the form of a 15-year naming-rights deal to the Anaheim Ducks’ home arena, a deal it signed in 2006. Honda ended its 11-year sponsorship of MLS in June 2007, and has title sponsorship at a PGA Tour stop, the Honda Classic, through 2012. Still, one league sales executive said talks were continuing with several auto brands. Other categories in the sights of NHL marketers include insurance, technology, packaged goods, consumer electronics and a wireless deal in Canada.

The Detroit Red Wings lifted the
Stanley Cup, while a big postseason
helped lift the NHL.

GO PLAY OUTSIDE: Even five months after the event, the effect that the Amp Energy Winter Classic had as far as legitimizing the NHL as “new and improved” cannot be overstated.

“They just showed us all they can really execute,” said John Stamatis, Pepsi senior manager of sports marketing. “If there were any questions about that, the outdoor game answered them.”

There were plenty of questions in Toronto, however, about the next outdoor game, long rumored as being in Chicago between the Blackhawks and the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.

“I would bet on the Midwest,” Bettman told the audience, “but the deal isn’t done yet.”

Other sources said the game will be Jan. 1 at Wrigley Field, with former Cubs President John McDonough, who’s now got the same title at the Blackhawks, playing a principal role. As you might expect, both sponsors and potential sponsors are more enthusiastic about leveraging a game in Chicago than one in Buffalo.

As for the prospect of a New York Rangers game in Yankee Stadium, a matchup long envisioned by NHL broadcast rights holder NBC? “Being the first [non-baseball] event in the new Yankee Stadium may be easier and simpler than being the last event in the old Yankee Stadium,” said one league marketer.

An official announcement on an outdoor game is expected with the release of the NHL schedule in July.

ON THE BLUE LINE: The Stanley Cup playoffs drew record traffic to NHL.com, thanks to an elegant new broadband video player that allows fans to do such customizable things as play every goal of the season from a particular player. That kind of broad functionality had one broadcaster referring to the NHL’s video portal as ”the death star” and helped reverse a trend that normally saw league traffic drop during the playoffs. With that success in hand, NHL new media guru Andre Mika is promising a relaunched NHL.com in early September that will include greatly enhanced fantasy and social-networking features. Digital agencies Rocketfuel and AKQA are assisting with the NHL.com relaunch.

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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