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Volume 20 No. 42
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Olympics not sweating NHL move

Hockey fans decried the NHL’s April 3 decision to play through the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games, but the Olympics business world met the news with a shrug.

In the two decades since North American pros first arrived at Nagano in 1998, their star power has lent some extra sizzle to the Winter Games. But even with the stars, hockey has always stood somewhat apart from the core Olympic experience upon which most sponsors and broadcasters build.

“Hockey is not the most important sport in the Winter Olympics from a television point of view,” said former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson, who negotiated Olympic rights deals for 1992, ’94 and ’98. “It’s an issue that doesn’t have a huge impact on revenue generation by NBC. If I’m at NBC, I’d rather have NHL players, but it’s not a disaster.”

NBC declined to discuss its programming plans for 2018, but hockey has never been featured in the all-important Olympic prime-time show, which goes heavy on figure skating, alpine skiing, feature packages and commercials. Team sports are relegated to cable channels that deliver a more conventional sports viewing experience, so any decline in ratings will be felt on the margins.

“We’re confident that hockey fans and Olympic viewers will tune in to watch the unique style of play that occurs at the Olympic Winter Games when athletes are competing for their country,” NBC Sports said in a statement.

Make no mistake, the Winter Games still face serious challenges in delivering an audience for sponsors and advertisers. Figure skating isn’t as popular as it once was, and expectations for the U.S. team are low by historical standards. And the remote location in South Korea hasn’t helped American enthusiasm.

But the loss of the NHL will be felt more by hard-core NHL fans than Olympic marketers, who know that most fans are rooting for flags more than individuals.

For instance, NHL stars were on the ice for Canada’s epic 2010 gold-medal match win over the U.S. in Vancouver, which drew the largest American hockey audience since 1980 with 27.6 million viewers in a weekend afternoon spot on the NBC broadcast network. By comparison, NBC’s highest-rated NHL game ever, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final one year later, drew just 8.5 million viewers.

“I think hockey’s hockey,” said Greg Goldring, senior director of marketing at Platinum Rye Entertainment, who advises brands on Olympic athlete campaigns. “It’s got a strong endemic fan base, and during the Olympics, whether our stars are on the ice or not, people are going to be rooting for Team USA or their respective country.”

Worldwide Olympic sponsor Bridgestone was faced with a similar problem in 2016, when it committed to a major activation at the Rio Games golf tournament only to see most of the world’s top golfers withdraw. But ultimately, the tournament was a thriller and drew rave reviews from the golfers and fans who did attend.

“I think the experience with golf in Rio is reason to be optimistic when it comes to recent NHL news,” said Phil Pacsi, Bridgestone’s vice president of sports and events marketing. “While we would always like to see the absolute best of the best compete, there is still certain to be powerful drama, emotion and performance with great athletes competing for their country on the world’s biggest stage.”

The loss of NHL stars could be an opportunity for women’s hockey players, said Brant Feldman, an agent who represents both Canadian and American women’s national team members.

But in the U.S., at least, NHL players have tended not to be major players in Olympic-specific campaigns, said Dan Levy, senior vice president of action sports and Olympics at Wasserman.

“NHL sponsors support the guys and Olympic sponsors support the women,” Levy said. “I may be wrong, but I cannot remember too many USOC or IOC sponsors partnering with NHL players in the past.”