Ad-Sense and Nonsense: The NHL’s Marketing Successes and Failures

The NHL is on the rise. After spending years as the redheaded stepchild of professional sports leagues, hockey is starting to make its way back to prime-time television again. NBC and their various sister channels (CNBC, USA Network, and NBCSN) have shown the entirety of the NHL playoffs, with most of the games appearing on networks accessible to the majority of country. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s a far cry from where the league was at less than a decade ago.

Off of ESPN and Into the Wilderness

In 2005, the NHL and ESPN decided to part ways, causing the league to sign a three-year, $200 million deal with Comcast, who promptly put the NHL on Outdoor Life Network (OLN). While some were trying to figure out how the NHL could be considered “outdoor life,” even more people were simply trying to figure out what channel their games were on. OLN, at the time, had paltry national coverage, reaching only about 60 million homes. Even the relaunch of the channel to turn it from OLN to VERSUS in 2006 did little to help the NHL’s image.

Fans weren’t the only ones frustrated with the move. In the book, Those Guys Have All The Fun: Inside The World of ESPN, there’s a quote from SportsCenter host Steven Levy about the split between ESPN and the NHL and the inaccessibility of the sport at the time:

The people at VERSUS offered essentially more than twice what we did, and the NHL, and I believe this is shortsighted, took the money. And the League has made this mistake before over the years with that SportsChannel America. They got to make a few extra bucks, but nobody could see the games,” said Levy. “I’m constantly being told by players and the players’ association and the NHL that the guys are frustrated. Can’t get the games. Don’t know what channel it’s on. Can’t get it in the hotel when they’re on the road. They can’t watch their own sport.

NBC eventually started to cover some playoff games, but that opened up another can of worms. None bigger the Buffalo/Ottawa disaster in the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs. NBC was covering the Eastern Conference Finals, Game 5 between the two teams, when Maxim Afinogenov tied the game with about 10 minutes left in the 3rd period. The game seemed destined for overtime, which normally wouldn’t have been an issue. But NBC was contractually obligated to begin showing coverage of the Preakness Stakes at a certain time, a time that overtime hockey would have cut into. So after a single warning about where to find the continuation of the game, Game 5 was switched from NBC to Versus…with a two-minute delay between the switch. Coverage of the game went from 114 million homes to about 70 million, leaving a possible 40 million hockey fans out in the cold.

Focusing on the Youth

The switch from ESPN to NBC was a long process, wrought with mistakes and miscues, but at the end of the day, it appears to have worked out for the best. That’s more than what can be said about this next marketing flop. Mention the name The Guardian Project to NHL fans and you’ll either get a blank stare or bemused laughter, because when it comes to this massive marketing failure, one either knows nothing about it or knows exactly how it ended up.

It was a solid idea in concept. In an attempt to appeal to younger hockey fans, the NHL partnered with Stan Lee himself to create a team of superheroes, all based on NHL organizations. Had it worked out as planned, the league could have likely taken advantage of the superhero craze that has infiltrated television and movies nowadays. There was just one problem.

The heroes created were obvious knockoffs of existing superheros. It’s hard to enjoy “The Canuck,” when all one sees when they look at him is a surfing Batman. “The Canadien” could easily be confused as a new Iron Man suit, as well as “The Avalanche” as a different version of Mr. Freeze. The official reveal of the Guardians was during the 2011 All-Star Game in Raleigh, North Carolina.

As someone who attended that game, let me tell you, that silence you hear during the reveal was real. Everyone in the arena was just dumbstruck that both Stan Lee and the NHL were happy to attach themselves to this project.

Unsurprisingly, the Guardian Project disappeared just as quickly as it began, but not without making one serious impact. The tech firm that financed the special effects in that video? They blamed the Guardian Project for their $3 million drop in profits that year.

Making an Impact 30 seconds at a Time

If there’s one thing the NHL’s marketing department has gotten right over the years, it’s their playoff commercials. Every year, there’s a new ad with a new slogan that does a great job of capturing the mood and the excitement of playoff hockey. The first one I remember was the 2008 playoff spot, “Cup Raise,” which shows sequential still shots of various players raising the Stanley Cup, finishing with the line “It weighs 35 pounds except when you’re lifting it.” Chills, every time.

The biggest campaign, by far, was their “History Will Be Made” campaign. Showing historic playoff moments set to a building tune, the ads first ran in the 2010 playoffs and were immediately met with praise. According to the NHL, the ads helped draw more than 302 million fans to watch the games, the most in 36 years. In addition, fans were able to create their own “History Will be Made” ads after the league released the music composition on their Facebook page. The ads were so successful, they ran the campaign a second year, beginning with one entitled simply “Wish.”

Since then, the league has done an excellent job of producing high quality commercials every year. This year’s spot, “Name”, does an excellent job of not only preparing fans for the Stanley Cup Finals, but making them think back to all the players in the past. The narration matches the images perfectly, discussing how a name “builds a reputation” while showing Bobby Clarke, or a name is often made greater by “the company it keeps,” while showing Toews and Kane together.

There’s a lot to work with if one were to criticize the NHL’s marketing department. These commercials are not one of them. If the NHL can take the success they have found in these TV spots and build upon it, the NHL can strengthen its brand, even as many other leagues find theirs in dire straits.