SBJ/20081006/This Week's News

Sponsorships help NHL jump-start new season

The 2008-09 NHL season is under way and the league has its first new automobile corporate sponsor in 13 years with Honda signing a three-year deal replacing Dodge as the league’s official vehicle. Networker Cisco has also returned and expanded its league deal, while Visa is close to completing a Canadian-only three-year deal that marks the league’s first sponsorship from a credit card brand since MasterCard left after the 2006 season.

Collins

“We’re starting to gather momentum, both from a media perspective and with partners like Honda, recognizing the strides we’ve been making in areas like new media and connecting to an underserved fan base,” said NHL COO John Collins, who has overseen a reorganization of the NHL’s business side since joining as executive vice president of corporate sales and marketing in late 2006.

This comes while the league takes over production responsibilities for its NHL Network and seeks to add programming, including a nightly national pregame show. With more media inventory to sell, Collins is developing a hockey-focused sales squad and has brought on Jim Burnette, former Fox Sports executive vice president of sports strategy and marketing, to take a full-time role as executive in charge of advertising marketplace development.

On the corporate side, Honda is taking North American NHL rights with its three-year deal that sees the Japanese automaker becoming the official vehicle. The deal is valued at $4 million a year and includes media buys on NHL broadcasters NBC, Versus, CBC, TSN and NHL digital media. Honda, which ranks fourth in U.S. market share (see chart), will be one of the presenting sponsors of the NHL Winter Classic in Chicago on New Year’s Day and of the Jan. 25 NHL All-Star Game in Montreal. Honda picks up title rights to the All-Star Game MVP award and the All-Star Skills Challenge. Hockey-themed print and TV ads from Honda agency Rubin Postaer and Associates should break this month. The NHL sponsorship represents Honda’s first national foray into any of the “big five” American sports properties.

NHL Official Sponsors
Sponsor Category
Partner since
Anheuser-Busch (Bud Light)* Beer
1994
Bank of America* Credit card issuer
1995**
Bridgestone Tire
2007
Cisco Technology solutions provider
2008
ConAgra Foods^ Sponsor
2007
GreenLife Environmental initiatives
2008
Home Depot^ Home improvement
2003
Honda Motor Co. Automobile
2008
Kraft^ Cracker, cookie, snack mix
1989
Labatt Breweries^ Beer
1998
McDonalds^ Fast-food restaurant
1993
PepsiCo (Aquafina, Gatorade, Pepsi, Amp Energy, Frito-Lay) Soft drink, snack
2006
Scotiabank^ Bank
2007
Ticketmaster Secondary tickets
2007
Verizon Wireless* Wireless telecom service
2000
Visa^^ Branded card
2008
XM Satellite Radio Satellite radio
2007
* U.S. only
** Through its acquisition of MBNA
^ Canada only
^^ Sources say deal is close to be finalized as of press time
Source: NHL, SportsBusiness Journal research

With the state of the domestic auto market, it’s not a surprise that Dodge did not renew. Last season, at least 14 NHL clubs had a commercial relationship with Honda, and additional team sponsorships by the auto manufacturer’s dealer groups are expected.

“We really like the NHL profile,” said Tom Peyton, senior manager for advertising at American Honda in Torrance, Calif., about 30 miles from Anaheim, where Honda has held naming rights to the home rink of the NHL Ducks since October 2006. “The [NHL] demos of young, affluent suburbanites match well with our target, and when we did our research, we found that for Honda buyers, watching and attending NHL games indexed higher than for any of the other stick-and-ball sports.”

The NHL’s popularity across North America also helped cement what is the first sponsorship agreement jointly signed by Honda’s American and Canadian subsidiaries. The car maker’s other U.S. sports marketing activities include the IRL, where it is the only engine in the open-wheel circuit, along with the America Le Mans Series and the Honda Classic PGA Tour stop. The addition of Honda gives the NHL two corporate sponsors with Japanese parents. Bridgestone is the other.

“When you look at the state of not only the economy, but the auto industry in general, we’re feeling pretty good about Honda,” said NHL sponsorship chief Keith Wachtel. “Our demos match well and they will support us in the U.S. and Canada at every level.”

Honda's Place In The U.S.
Honda has replaced Chrysler as the No. 4 automaker in the U.S. Automakers U.S. market share, based on vehicles sold through Aug. 31, 2007 and 2008
Manufacturer
2007
2008
Change in share points
GM
23.30%
21.60%
-1.7
Toyota
16.20%
16.80%
0.6
Ford
15.10%
14.40%
-0.7
Honda
9.70%
11.10%
1.4
Chrysler
12.90%
11.00%
-1.9
Source: Autodata

Peyton said the deal would largely be used as a brand play and noted that both the NHL and Honda share something of an underdog status when it comes to competing sports properties and vehicle manufacturers.

“You don’t think of Honda’s as a brand that needs more awareness, but in markets like trucks and SUVs, consumers don’t necessarily think of us, so when that market comes back we will definitely use the NHL to push there,” he said.

Canadian banks may issue either Visa or MasterCard cards — but not both. Visa, close to completing a three-year deal, will assist fellow NHL Canadian sponsor Scotiabank in launching a NHL-branded Visa card that will offer rewards, including unique NHL experiences, as incentives.

Cisco, which had a small deal last season that ran from the All-Star Game through the Stanley Cup playoffs, has signed a one-year deal as the league’s “technology solutions provider.” With the league’s digital offerings growing, the NHL hopes to expand the deal further. Cisco will support through digital media buys and buys on NHL broadcast rights holders.

Despite the economy, both Wachtel and Collins are saying this will be another year of relatively high double-digit growth for NHL sponsorship revenue. “We need to connect to the marketplace and tell sponsors why they need to buy hockey, in whatever form,” Collins said.

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