MKTG Insights: Sponsorship Guide to the 2014-15 NHL Season
NHL Hockey is back. As a new season starts, there is a renewed sense of optimism for hockey fans both casual and avid. "There's always next year" is the rallying cry for all fans who experienced disappointment last season - and the motivation behind faithfully returning to arenas and television sets for a new campaign. For corporate sponsors and marketing partners of the National Hockey League and its clubs, a similar optimism and excitement reigns at the beginning of each season. The 2014-2015 season is a new chance to engage with consumers in an area of extreme passion, watch new programs come to life, and apply the key learnings from past seasons.
The hockey sponsorship landscape is fluid. While hockey is a mainstay as a mass platform for reach and exposure, there are trends and considerations that can impact strategy on a year-to-year basis. This year in particular, with a major shakeup in the broadcast landscape as Rogers' new $5.2-billion, 12-year television-rights deal comes into effect, the way consumers in this country experience hockey will be evolving. In lockstep with that evolution are the strategies and approaches employed by brands to effectively reach hockey fans. MKTG provides a snapshot of factors for sponsorship marketers to account for as they get set for the puck to drop.
1. Introduction of New Sponsors: New brands have been added to the NHL's roster of sponsors. In Canada, Proctor & Gamble has sponsored the league and will leverage the partnership to promote their line of Oral Care products and will tap New York Rangers forward Martin St. Louis as the face of the campaign. More recently, the NHL announced a partnership with GoPro that will bring POV content to fans. From landmark CPG brands with large sponsorship portfolios like P&G, to innovative tech companies making content plays in GoPro, the NHL shield continues to attract investment.
2. Ground-breaking Emphasis on Local Execution : The game of hockey is inextricably linked to communities. 2014 will see major activations go into local communities to celebrate the sport. While brands who are large investors in the sport of hockey have typically adopted a "top-down" approach by complimenting their sponsorship of major properties with grassroots programming, in 2014-2015 this strategy will be rolled out with greater emphasis. Beginning October 11th, Rogers Hometown Hockey presented by Scotiabank and Dodge will be visiting 25 cities across Canada with major sponsor activations from brands like Scotiabank (MKTG Client), Dodge, McDonald's, Samsung, and Xbox One. The trend is consistent in the U.S., where Kraft will roll out their Hockeyville program across American cities. Brands who can complement an overarching National strategy with local executions will unlock the potential of sponsorship.
3. No More HBO: The NHL's crown jewel property, the Bridgestone Winter Classic, will not be prefaced by a HBO 24/7 series. This year's game will feature the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks and will take place in D.C. The series helped build storylines and interest in the matchup amongst casual fans. In the absence of a dedicated series prior to the game, whether or not fan interest and ultimately sponsor value will be impacted remains to be seen. The league may leverage their TV property on NBC, "NHL Revealed" to generate buzz for the event.
4. The Reign of Rogers: Hometown Hockey is just one example of how Rogers will shape hockey consumption this season. The strategy can be summarized with one word: choice. Content will be distributed across mobile channels through Rogers' takeover of NHL Gamecentre, exclusive material across the brand's suite of publications, and the most comprehensive broadcast schedule of NHL history. Sponsors can maximize potential by recognizing their partnership with Rogers as more than a media buy by developing engaging features that strategically align to their brand. Rogers winning the NHL rights will also impact the exposure of on-air talent. Don Cherry and Ron Maclean on CBC have been the de facto voices of hockey in this country for 25 years. Both were leveraged as brand ambassadors by a variety of brands during their tenure. Fresh voices like George Stroumboulopoulos may become attractive to brands activating around a hockey thematic.
5. Prospect Watch 2015 - In addition to NHL rights, Rogers has the rights to broadcast all CHL and Memorial Cup Games in Canada. Similar to how TSN broadcasted Andrew Wiggins games at Kansas last season, Rogers will be pulsing in significant coverage of top prospects such as Connor McDavid, one of the NHL's most hyped junior players in recent years, with the assumption that he will the 1st overall pick in 2015. McDavid will be on the radar of corporate sponsors as well. Biosteel - Canadian-based sports drink - has already signed McDavid to a deal and will be activating around him heavily during the World Junior Hockey Championships and the Memorial Cup. Just as McDavid's performance this season will be judged by NHL scouts, his first featured role as a brand ambassador will also be monitored by additional prospective corporate sponsors.
6. All-Star Game Returns: In a non-Olympic year, the midseason event is back on the NHL schedule and will be taking place in Columbus, Ohio. The All-Star game has delivered mixed levels of fan interest in recent years, but remains a property with strong fan engagement and hospitality potential. The league's programming plans have not been made public yet, but past extensions such as the All-Star Fantasy Draft have represented activation opportunities for sponsors. NHL sponsors will be watching the league's plans to bring innovation to the weekend. Further, Columbus' close proximity to Southeastern Ontario may prompt a strong Canadian contingent to attend the event, in turn leading to Canadian brand presence in Columbus. Regardless, all NHL and club team sponsors will benefit from not having to go dark during an extended period of time (as required in an Olympic year).
7. New Wave of Brand Ambassadors To Watch:
While top NHL endorsers like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin remain the faces of the league and many sponsor campaigns, there is an emerging class of players becoming increasingly attractive to brands. If there is one athlete poised to challenge Crosby and Ovechkin in terms of brand interest, it is Montreal Canadiens defensemen P.K. Subban. Subban is an energetic, articulate athlete who has appeared in engaging creative for a number of brands including Hyundai, RBC, Boston Pizza, Unilever (Degree), and Nike. Subban's occasionally polarizing actions can actually make him more attractive to certain brands with a less conservative brand personality. Beyond Subban, there are a number of other NHL athletes who boast modest endorsement portfolios today, but are poised to peak sponsor interest in the coming year(s):
Nathan Mackinnon: The 2013 1st overall pick won Rookie of the Year honours last season and exploded on to the scene with a strong playoff performance. Mackinnon recently appeared in a spot racing Olympic speed skater Charles Hamelin for CCM. It is Mackinnon's first leading role but likely not his last.
Erik Karlsson: With both former captain Daniel Alfredsson and long-time star Jason Spezza off the roster, the Senators will be placing significant resources behind Karlsson, making the recently named Captain the undisputed face of the franchise.
Jamie Benn: Canada's top goal scorer at the 2014 Sochi Olympics is digitally savvy with a strong social media presence.
Others to Watch: TJ Oshie, Jonathan Bernier, Taylor Hall, Logan Couture, and Evander Kane.