Editor’s Note: Brett Parker, director of media services for Little Rock-based Stone Ward, will this week provide occasional updates on events he attends at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas.
When thinking about core hockey markets, cities like Montreal, New York and Detroit immediately come to mind. But teams in non-traditional markets have quietly (and sometimes quite loudly) managed to establish meaningful identities, both on a local and national stage.
A panel of NHL experts on Monday (March 13) explored the challenges and advantages of not being the top dog in the sports landscape in a SXSW session titled, “Rise Up: Marketing the NHL in Non-Traditional Markets.”
Casey Hall, Group Vice President of Marketing for the National Hockey League, gave credit to the 2004 NHL lockout for helping inspire brand change within the league. Hall discussed further that while a lockout wasn’t ideal, it gave the NHL time to mold their brand into a better product because what they were doing before the lockout was “utter crap.”
During the lockout, the NHL heavily invested into consumer insights to understand which direction they wanted to go and how they would grow their brand in an ultra-competitive environment. “If you have a good product, people will seek you out, no matter the competition,” Hall stated .After reviewing the insights, the NHL found that its fans were more tribal compared to other leagues, and cared more about their own local teams than the NHL brand itself.
Armed with this new insight, the NHL implemented “exclusive marketing” that showcased behind the scenes footage and exclusive content to local NHL fans. Jonathan Lowe, Senior Vice President of Business Development for the LA Kings, spoke to the importance of targeting core fans first and other audiences second. Lowe believed in this concept so much the LA Kings hired an in-house beat writer to provide exclusive 24/7 content for LA King fans. “To date, this content section is the number one traffic driver among all pages on our website,” Lowe said.
As the local initiatives started to take off, the NHL focused its sights on marketing a concept that would appeal not only to its core fan base but would also pique the interest of non-fans. What resulted was the first Winter Classic, an event in which a regular season game would be played in the Buffalo Bills football stadium — outside. “We had lots of internal dialogue on how this wouldn’t work and definitely wouldn’t sell out,” Hall said. “Of the 75,000 seats, we thought we could sell around 40,000.”
The event sold out within 45 minutes. Hall and the panel credit its success to a “fresh new idea” that appealed to both hardcore hockey fans and those that liked experiencing new things. Since then, the NHL has held a total of nine Winter Classics, each building on the last in popularity.
In a nation dominated by football and basketball, hockey knows it will never hold first position among sport leagues, yet strives to be the best within its own vertical. Instead of trying to outgrow competitors by market share, the NHL utilizes innovative means to grow engagement for its current fan base.
As Hall stated, “If you have a good product, people will seek you out, no matter the competition.”