There are only seven Canadian franchises in the 30-club National Hockey League, yet the league would not be nearly as successful without its extraordinary fandom in the North.
According to data from Toronto-based market research firm IMI International, 17.4 million people — more than half of Canada’s population of 33 million — identify themselves as NHL fans.
Of the league’s estimated $4 billion in revenue for fiscal 2015, about one-third came from ticket sales, sponsorships and broadcast partnerships in Canada. That’s impressive, considering only 23 percent of the NHL’s 30 teams are based in Canada.
|Calgary Flames fans pass along a Canadian flag during the 2015 playoffs.
Other revenue line items over-index in Canada as well, including media rights. The NHL’s 12-year broadcast agreement with Rogers, which started with the 2014-15 season, is for $5.2 billion (Canadian) — the largest media rights deal in NHL history. By comparison, the NHL’s 10-year deal with NBC, which expires after the 2020-21 season, is for $2 billion. Although the American deal is a good one for the NHL, the best in league history by far, what makes the contrast so startling is that the U.S. population is almost 10 times Canada’s.
Scott Moore, the man who made the deal for Rogers, says he does not have to wait another decade to call the Canadian broadcast rights agreement a success for his company. Since adding the NHL to his network, Rogers’ Sportsnet has overtaken TSN as the top sports network in Canada.
“It has already been a spectacular investment,” said Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL Properties for Rogers. “Where else have you seen a sports channel go from a distant No. 2 to a dominant No. 1 in three years? When’s the last time Fox Sports or NBCSN beat ESPN? We went out and got the NHL — the most important sports content in Canada. You just don’t get that kind of turnaround story in broadcasting.”
Moore continued, “We’ve been very upfront with the press and our shareholders about whether that investment is paying off financially. Yes, it is. It is making a profit for us. The majority of Sportsnet’s revenues comes from subscriber fees. The difference between being a distant No. 2 to a dominant No. 1 translates into a stronger position on subscriber fees. If you’re a sports fan in Canada, you want Sportsnet.”
And if you want to sell more of your product in Canada, you want the NHL. That’s essentially the message league sponsorship executives pitch to prospective corporate partners.
“If you’re looking to engage a Canadian with your brand, there is no bigger passion in this country than the National Hockey League,” said Kyle McMann, NHL group vice president of integrated sales. “If you’re creating a sports strategy in Canada, we sit atop the leaderboard among other sports properties in the country.”
|Rogers’ Sportsnet has used the NHL to become the top sports network in Canada.
“There’s a reason Scotiabank, Canadian Tire, Molson and many others have made major investments in the NHL — the best way to reach the masses in Canada with a promotional message is through hockey,” said Brian Cooper, president and CEO of S&E Sponsorship Group, a leading sponsorship agency in Canada that has represented a number of top brands. “The television numbers do not lie. They outweigh all the other sports that we have by a long shot. From a sponsorship perspective, it’s a crowded market. But if a top sponsor drops out, another company is in line to take that space.”
Perhaps the only regional sports bonds that rival Canada’s passion for hockey are found in the unbridled love for soccer in certain parts of Europe. As Moore noted, “Our $5 bill has a scene of kids playing ice hockey. You don’t see football or baseball as part of the U.S. currency.”
With all of this popularity in Canada — only the Ottawa Senators, at 80 percent capacity, are not at near-capacity among Canadian teams — it’s common for people around the league to wish for another NHL franchise in Canada.
“I would love to see another team in Canada,” said Mark Chipman, executive chairman of True North Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Winnipeg Jets. Since returning to the NHL in 2014 after a move from Atlanta, the Jets have been a smash success. Season-ticket renewals have hit 96 percent annually, and when the few seats become available, they are snapped up by the 4,000 people on a waiting list.
“We’re still humbled by the response from fans and business partners,” Chipman said. “We were confident we’d do well, but our expectations continue to be exceeded. So there’s a connection between us and a place like Quebec City, a great hockey town that also had a team and lost it. I’ve spoken with people in Quebec. They got an arena done. They’re going about it the right way.”
Las Vegas becomes the NHL’s 31st franchise in 2017. Leading options for potential expansion in Canada are Quebec City at the new Videotron Centre and possibly another franchise in Ontario.
Said Roy MacGregor, the longtime columnist for the Globe & Mail and 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame media honoree known for writing about hockey-as-religion in Canada, “If you can have three teams in the New York City area, you can have a second team near Toronto. The high-tech community in the Kitchener-Waterloo area would be ideal. Either way, NHL business in Canada is so robust, it’s far more likely that we’ll gain a team than lose one.”
Chris Botta is a freelance writer and independent communications consultant based in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com.