LCS Hockey: Born Again
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August 22, 2017
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Say Cheese: NHL Needs To Flaunt What It's Got

So I was settling back onto my couch this past Thursday. Pork rinds and beef jerky sat on the coffee table. My good friend Jack Daniels sat beside me on the couch as we both prepared ourselves for the beginning of the NHL season.

No, I'm not crazy or drunk (yet). You heard me right, I said the "beginning of the NHL season." Why? Well, if you ask ESPN, the NHL season started this past Thursday with the New York Rangers in Philadelphia. This marquee matchup kicked off ESPN's weekly Thursday Night broadcasts...only two months after the season started.

The lack of consistent national media coverage is only one of many problems plaguing the NHL in recent years. Yearly rule changes, officiating discrepancies and dilution of talent due to expansion are all major contributors to the NHL's stagnant fan base.

The Flyers' hideously orange new third jerseys, which they debuted on Thursday, cannot be helping much either. To quote J.D., "Holy Living (Sunshine!), those things are ugly." To which I replied, "Well said, now get over here and let me dim that orange by drinking from your head."

Jack and I are cool like that. Which is why we decided to brainstorm some ideas on how to save this league from mediocrity. This week, we focus on how the NHL is marketed on television.

Number Four With a Bullet
Here in the United State, it is an uncontested truth that there are three major professional sports leagues: the NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. Our beloved league, the NHL, is generally considered the fourth major sports league. Though, in recent years, some pundits muse that NASCAR has replaced the NHL as the most popular second-tier league. Whatever. Backwoods hicks from Canadia are much cooler than rednecks from the South. Regardless, somehow hockey and the NHL have slipped to such levels as to garner less popularity than I did in high school.

It was only about 20 years ago that the NHL and the NBA were both seen as similar "specialty" leagues beneath the NFL and MLB. Both leagues had their ardent followers, but neither the NBA nor NHL were seen as potential entities that could enmesh themselves into America's cultural identity. Then, David Stern emerged as NBA commissioner. Stern willed his love of the game of basketball into the collective American conscience. The NBA went through a remarkable transformation in the media, based on one man's vision. Magic vs. Bird gave way to Michael Jordan gave way to Larry Johnson's Grandmama. Clearly, the marketing of the NBA and its players has catapulted the league past the NHL to "elite" status.

So, what can the NHL do to try and boost itself up to become the definitive fourth major sports league in the country? Coming up with its own marketing plan, heavily borrowing from the success of other leagues, would be a phenomenal first step.

A thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters...
Anyone who turns on an NHL game on TV right now is guaranteed to see a few things: a Labatt Blue ad every other commercial break; commercials for video games and video-game systems; Dodge truck ads; and a smattering of Southwest Airlines commercials. The first thing inherently wrong with this lineup of advertisements is that not one NHL team or NHL player is represented in any of these commercials. In fact, the only ads that feature hockey at all are the Labatt Blue commercial where the guy in the bear outfit plays goalie and the Southwest Airlines "Primakov" commercial where an obnoxious fan ridicules an imaginary Russian skater all game, only to be informed by the PA announcer that Primakov's parents are sitting directly in front of him.

By contrast, three out of five ads shown during a typical NBA broadcast will feature NBA players, teams or the league itself. The NBA does the best job of all sports (except maybe golf) at constantly reminding you, during commercial breaks, that you are watching an NBA game. If the NHL wants to draw in new fans to watch hockey, then it has to release an all-out marketing blitz on the television viewer.

The NHL: Now with 30 percent less standing around!
The NHL should start with a series of commercials that hype the league itself. Remember the "NBA Action: It's Fannnnntastic!" ads from the late 80s-early 90s? Those ads were the progenitor to the current-day "I love this game" NBA ads. Basically, the NHL needs to find a hip, catchy slogan; show some slick individual plays (goals, sweet passes, ridiculous checks and sick saves); and pay some celebrities (other than Kiefer Sutherland) to shout out the hip, catchy slogan from their rinkside or luxury box seats. The important thing is to slap together a series of similar, but different, spots. No matter how clever and cool a TV commercial is, if the same spot is played many times during each broadcast, viewers will eventually tune it out and begin to hate it (see aforementioned Labatt Blue ads).

Less artsy more fartsy
Some of you may try and point to those Kiefer Sutherland-narrated spots that are showing up now that Thursday Night Hockey games are back on ESPN. There are three problems with those spots. First and foremost, although they appear to be hyping the league, these spots are cleverly disguised plugs for ESPN and its Thursday game of the week. Second, each spot begins with a Kiefer headshot. Most people will mistake these ads for ads for an episode of "24" shot at Staples Center. Third, the spots are trying to be too ethereal; too understated. Describing the sport of hockey as poetry while flashing only a couple images of actual players and/or gameplay, creates a gulf between the casual fan and the sport.

The casual viewer turns on a hockey game to see the fast-paced action, some hard checking, and hopes to see a sweet goal or two and maybe a fight. Portraying each regular season NHL contest as something deeper and more meaningful than it actually is (e.g. comparing a game to a baptism) could only possibly appeal to the established hockey fan. Newer fans could actually find themselves turned away from the sport because of ads like this. Why? Well, how many of you actually experience a religious rebirth while watching the Pens and the Sharks as Gary Thorne butchers your favorite player's last name? The Kiefer spots imply that you are missing out on what hockey truly is if you can't feel the poetry on ice. No one wants to feel as though he or she is missing out on something important, yet these spots lay claim to an understanding that a new or casual viewer simply cannot achieve.

...but she got "cat"
Next, the NHL should take a page out of the NFL charities book. Specifically, the NHL should hire the exact same advertising firm that produces the United Way public service announcements for the NFL to create similar spots for the NHL. It doesn't get any better than Jake Plummer gushing about how every other bird fears the cardinal, or Duce Staley in a "timeout" after he whines to the teacher when he has to spell "chrysanthemum" in the class spelling bee. Everyone likes the NFL's United Way spots, even my buddy Jack. The NHL needs to put out a similar series of ads, showing the players' human sides as they interact with their communities. I'm not suggesting a blatant rip-off, but someone who isn't me and knows anything about marketing should come up with something fun, playful and memorable. Television ads that establish the NHL and its players as giving and charismatic members of the community, through their involvement in various charities, could be a lot of fun.

No shame in selling out
The final step is one the players themselves need to make: endorsing products on a national scale. Turn on the TV or open up a magazine, and you will see things like Donovan McNabb and Michael Strahan eating Chunky soup, Emmitt Smith using his Visa card online or talking to ALF about 10-10-220, Shaq eating at Burger King, Venus and Serena eating at McDonalds, and Chris Webber and Tracy McGrady guzzling Mountain Dew Code Red (not to mention the shoe commercials given to just about every NBA star and scrub). Over the past several years, think back to all of the ads you have seen where a hockey player was featured as the main spokesman. The only ones I can think of are the Dominik Hasek Visa ad, the later Bud Light bubble boy hockey ads where Wayne Gretzky became the commissioner, the Nike hockey ads from the mid-90s where an out-of-work goalie bemoans Sergei Fedorov and his own "weak, weak glove hand", and the EA Sports NHL 2003 video-game ads from the beginning of this season.

With the exception of this year's EA ads (which I will discuss shortly), the ad campaigns above either featured retired players (bubble boy hockey ads) or used in-game footage of the player - neither Hasek nor Fedorov spoke any lines, nor did they even need to be present at any time during the creation process for their commercials. Kind of like me when I write my Detroit team report every other week...

Anyway, the point is the public really needs to finally see and hear the players, out from under all of their equipment. Hockey is dying for a Michael Jordan of its own (from a marketing point-of-view) to unleash himself upon North America. Unfortunately, there are some hurdles for hockey players on the marketing front.

Everywhere you look, everywhere you go
Fair or not, some biases are currently working against hockey players. Even now, in the 21st century, the public's image of a hockey player is a large, oafish Neanderthal with a stick who has five teeth in his head and cannot string as many words together in a sentence. Granted, many hockey players are missing some teeth, but most put in fake teeth when they aren't playing. And besides, anyone who claims that hockey players are eyesores and uncharismatic clearly have not seen the wives and girlfriends that hockey players snag: Janet Jones, Carol Alt, Pamela Anderson, Anna Kournikova, that older sister from Full House now that she's all grown up and stuff. The list goes on and on. If hot, leggy supermodels find hockey players and LCS Hockey correspondent attractive, then there has to be something marketable there that Madison Avenue can exploit. At this point, the only way to refute old stereotypes is for the viewing public to actually see hockey players acting in commercials. Unlike Gary Thorne at the beach, the more exposure these players can get, the better.

Say it, Frenchy
Another obstacle is the fact that only a small percentage of NHL players are from the United States. More and more players each year hail from Europe and Russia; which means more and more players each year do not speak English very well (if at all). Even players from Canada may come from a French-Canadian background and households that primarily spoke French. The end result is advertisers may be hesitant to cast Patrick Roy, Pavel Datsyuk, or Ilya Kovalchuk, regardless of how good they are playing, for fear that the American consumer will have trouble understanding these players when they talk. That being said, there are still plenty of charismatic English-speaking players who would be great in television commercials. Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Joe Sakic, Mario Lemieux, Vaclav Prospal, to name just a few.

It's in the game
In light of everything I have revealed up to this point, it probably won't surprise you to find out I was pretty excited when I first saw the EA Sports NHL 2003 spots at the beginning of the season. There were three different spots, each featuring a different NHL forward, and each forward had his own taunts. San Jose Shark Owen Nolan talked to the net; Atlanta Thrasher youngster Dany Heatley jawed at the puck; and Detroit Red Wing Luc Robitaille spoke to his stick. The writing was rather heinous, but the players were shown on the ice with their helmets off (*gasp* you mean people could actually see what hockey players look like? how novel). Heatley even seemed to get into his role and delivered his lines with a flair (BOO!) that made me laugh at him (silly Heatley).

Here's the problem though - I have not seen any of these ads since the first week or two of the season. Where did they go? Did EA sell all of their copies of NHL 2003? Seriously, there is no greater market to sell hockey video games than during a real live hockey game. Yet for some strange reason I sit through numerous ads for basketball and football video games during NHL broadcasts, while the hockey video game ads are nowhere to be seen. And how come Sega hasn't been hyping their NHL 2K3 game during ESPN games? I mean, they have the ESPN license for their games. One would think it would be mutually beneficial for both parties if ads for NHL 2K3 ran during ESPN hockey games. But what do I know? I'm an unfrozen caveman sports writer. I don't understand your advanced "marketing strategies" or this thing called "money" or how little men can live inside such a small 19-inch diagonal box.

Just do it
So there you go, Mr. Bettman. A simple, effective strategy to get your NHL up to the lofty status it deserves. With your roots in the NBA, Gary, it's a wonder you could not come up with most of this strategy yourself. Hmmm...perhaps your love of the game of hockey does not rival David "The Commish" Stern's love of the game of basketball? Could it be your love of the game of hockey is really just a love of the social status the title "NHL Commissioner" proffered upon you? C'mon, Count, prove to us that you truly do have this sport's best interest in mind. Figure out a way to get more hockey in the media and maybe, just maybe, another major network or two will jump into the mix when your current television contract with ABC/ESPN is set to expire. It's the right thing to do. And the tasty way to do it.

LCS Hockey: Born Again
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