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Volume 20 No. 42
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Despite losses to lockout, NHL steams ahead

What’s not seen, and what might never be known, is what might have been lost. But one month into the NHL’s lockout-abbreviated season, attendance, TV and online numbers paint a picture of a league that appears to have come back well from its third work stoppage in 18 years.

“You never know for sure what to expect when it’s over, but I was pretty confident in the loyalty of NHL fans,” said Cam Neely, Boston Bruins president and former player. “We’re very appreciative that they stood by us.”

In Boston and other NHL cities, the excitement and the fans are back. The Bruins have a waiting list for season tickets.
Through Feb. 12, 23 of the league’s 30 clubs were matching or surpassing this year what they posted in average attendance for the full 2011-12 season. Only Columbus (five), Phoenix (four) and the New York Islanders (three) had played more than two home games before crowds of less than 75 percent capacity.

“Every game does mean a lot more,” said Brian Cooper, president and CEO of Toronto-based S&E Sponsorship Group, about the truncated season that has each team playing only 48 games instead of their usual 82. “The fans are buying into that.”

Cooper’s firm represents Scotiabank, SiriusXM and Canadian Tire, among other companies, in deals with the NHL and with individual clubs. He was among the skeptics during the lockout, concerned about what damage this latest NHL work stoppage might leave behind.

And while evidence of damage does exist — a report from consultancy Brand Finance released last week detailed a projected loss in brand value for the league because of the lockout — Cooper characterizes the NHL’s return as “surprisingly strong.”

“I was very critical during the lockout about what I thought the brand damage would be. It turns out I was very wrong,” he said. “I actually have meetings with clients this week on playoff activation. Now that there’s a long-term CBA in place [the new collective-bargaining agreement is a 10-year deal, with an option for both sides after eight], I don’t anticipate anything except 100 percent renewals and a lot of new business.”

Cooper credits league executives for their transparency with corporate partners throughout the lockout.

At the NHL’s offices in midtown Manhattan, the return of the league’s often-celebrated loyal fan base has executives predicting new business.

“Thanks to the great start we’ve had, which we owe to the fans, we are having a lot of success with prospective partners across North America,” said Keith Wachtel, NHL senior vice president of integrated sales and marketing. “We expect to announce new deals in the near future in two sponsorship categories we’ve never had in the U.S., along with some other new, more traditional partners. Some major renewals will be done soon as well.”

According to Wachtel, open categories for the league are men’s personal care, consumer electronics, and travel and tourism in the United States; and insurance, automotive and fast food in Canada.

Said Peter Nowlan, chief marketing, strategy and business development officer at Molson Coors Canada, “No one wanted the lockout to go as long as it did, but we prepared so that when the season started, we turned on our activation programs immediately.”

Molson is in the middle of long-term sponsorship deals with the NHL as well as with the Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Senators and Oilers, but Nowlan said the lockout did not negatively affect his company’s relationship with the league nor its plans to sponsor it for years to come.

Although a major corporate partner of the league, Nowlan may have summed up Canada’s love for the game when he said, “As fans, we don’t stay mad at hockey for very long.”

Of course, the lost visibility for the league and its teams from July through December is something it will never get back. Nor will it ever present the 2013 versions of the NHL Winter Classic and All-Star Game, cancellations that Wachtel conceded were “the biggest disappointment” to sponsors about the lockout.

For what the league has been able to accomplish, Wachtel said most of the credit belongs to the NHL’s 30 teams and to its national and local broadcast partners.

“They were ready when the lockout ended,” Wachtel said. “They changed the story from looking at the past to looking ahead to the excitement of the season.”

On TV, since the NHL returned to NBC Sports Network on Jan. 20, viewership across the network’s first 12 games this season was up 36 percent from the same period last year, which also featured 12 games. On NBC, the network’s 1.1 average rating and 1.86 million average viewers across four games compare favorably to averages of 0.9 and 1.37 million viewers for three games aired through Feb. 12 last season.

In addition, NBC Sports Network appears to have a hit among hockey fans with its new, heavily promoted “Wednesday Night Rivalry” series. The first three games of the package — pitting the Bruins against the New York Rangers, Chicago versus Minnesota, and the Bruins against Montreal — became three of the five most-watched NHL regular-season games in NBC Sports Network/Versus/OLN history. (With 771,000 viewers, the Boston-Montreal game was also the most-viewed game featuring a Canadian team in the U.S. in 13 years).

“The rivalry idea celebrates the hatred that makes hockey great,” said Sam Flood, executive producer of NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “We take pride in creating brands and events that elevate our partners and their properties.”

Challenges do remain. Games featuring Western Conference teams, for example, continue to be a trouble spot. A Feb. 4 game between Dallas and Colorado drew only 176,000 viewers on NBC Sports Network despite not being blacked out locally.

Online, the league reports that NHL GameCenter Live subscriptions are up 170 percent over the first three weeks of the 2011-12 season. The league also reports that daily unique views on were up 32 percent over the first three weeks of last season.

“As strange as it might seem to people in other leagues, the reality is that the fans returned to the NHL,” said David Abrutyn, IMG Consulting senior vice president and global managing director, whose clients include Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals and Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers. “Despite everything they went through in the lockout, the NHL is not in a very different position than they were in at the end of the last Stanley Cup Final. They lost some valuable time, but they’re back in business, they’ll collect their data and they’ll be able to go after more corporate support.”

So while financially it may take years to determine whether the new CBA is a bigger victory for club owners or the NHL Players’ Association, NHL business appears to have largely survived the saga it took to negotiate the deal. A trip around the league, and the continent, shows how individual teams have responded, and are continuing to do so, as well.

“Humbled? Yes. Surprised? No,” said Bruins President Neely, who played for the Bruins from 1986-96 and was named president in 2010 after three years as a vice president and hockey operations adviser. “I guess I bring a different perspective than many management people. I experienced firsthand what the game means to the fans.”

Neely also knows what the Bruins mean to the New England region, so his team’s seamless bounce-back was not a surprise.

The Bruins capped season-ticket sales at 13,000 for this season. Only 20 accounts requested a refund on canceled games during the lockout as opposed to taking a credit on future purchases. When the lockout ended on Jan. 6, the Bruins decided to open their mini-plan inventory and sold more than 400 new plans. The team has a full-season-ticket waiting list of more than 1,000 accounts.

During the lockout, the Bruins managed to sign extensions with corporate sponsors JetBlue (five years as exclusive airline), Dunkin’ Donuts (five years as an official partner) and Hallmark Health (four years as official hospital).

Another positive club metric, however, illustrates the visibility the league and its teams lost when the game shut down. The Bruins say that they were one of six NHL teams to eclipse 1 million unique views of their club websites in January. According to the Bruins, their total views in January equaled the total of the previous six months.

The signing of Zach Parise helped jump-start business for the Wild.
Buoyed by the July 4 signings of free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, the Wild added more than 4,000 full-season equivalents over the next two months. Since the end of the lockout, the club has additionally sold more than 600 full-season tickets. According to the club, it did not lose any corporate sponsorships during the lockout while a trio of partnerships, all six figures annually, were added in the last month. Those deals were with Blue Cross Blue Shield, 3M and Cambria.

“The business came to us as much as we chased it,” said Wild Chief Operating Officer Matt Majka about the period after the lockout ended. “We knew there would have to be some recovery after the lockout, but it has been expedited. We are very grateful.”

The Lightning has sold 1,200 new season tickets since the lockout ended and has sold out all of their home games at 19,204-seat Tampa Bay Times Forum. One sponsor, Dex Imaging, opted to keep its entire investment for 2012-13 with the club, adding title sponsorship of the season to their existing, long-term deal. According to Chief Operating Officer Steve Griggs, the club expects to finalize long-term partners with “blue-chip brands” in the next two months.

Griggs added that Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik put money in the club’s operations in the offseason. A previously committed investment of $5 million in a Daktronics scoreboard that extends from one blue line to the other was fulfilled, and an additional commitment of $55 million was put forth during the lockout for upgrades to the sponsor-activation space at the arena.

“Jeff encouraged us to use the down time wisely and dream big,” Griggs said. “We worked hard on being involved in the community during the lockout and having a business plan when it ended. It’s paying off.”

The Kings and their fans had to wait to celebrate their title banner.
After a long wait, the Kings are finally reaping the benefits of being the reigning Stanley Cup champions. The club, which has capped season tickets at 15,000 after having only 11,000 sold in 2011-12, projects all of its 24 regular-season home games to sell out. Fifteen new sponsors, including Geico, Northrup Grumman and Tiffany & Co. — which created replica Stanley Cup rings that were given to all fans at the Kings’ home opener — are activating in Los Angeles this season.

“We planned for the worst and hoped for the best because we knew our fans were frustrated they couldn’t come back in October and celebrate,” said Kelly Cheeseman, COO of the Kings and their parent company, AEG Sports. “We’re not taking this fan base for granted. A big focus for us is now on service and retention.”

About 340 miles north of Los Angeles, the Sharks were witness to a tale demonstrating how hockey’s die-hard fans can be brought back. After canceling her full-season-ticket package out of disgust with the lockout, Sharks fan Sylvia Reyes-Koon was moved when she watched on television as star center Joe Thornton thanked the team’s fans for their dedication after the team’s victory in its sold-out home opener over Phoenix on Jan. 24.

Thornton got one fan to tweet (right) and return.
Reyes-Koon tweeted, “Joe Thornton, You make me want to go get my Season Tickets back. ... Got me all teared up like a little girl.”

The Sharks’ social media and ticket sales staff reached out to Reyes-Koon and invited her to the team’s next home game. Thornton told the staff that he would like Reyes-Koon to be his guest after the game for a meet-and-greet in the locker room hallway. After the game, Thornton presented her with a signed puck from that night’s victory over Colorado.

The next day, Reyes-Koon purchased a 10-game package for this season and told the Sharks that she hoped to be back for the entire 2013-14 season.

“All the lockouts in pro sports turn the fans’ stomachs, there’s no debating it,” said Malcolm Bordelon, Sharks executive vice president of business operations, referencing the NHL’s two work stoppages along with those of the NFL and NBA in 2011. “But there have been so many stoppages lately that I think fans have come to understand them and be somewhat forgiving. We’re fortunate that’s been the case in the NHL.”