May 23, 2017
Say Cheese: NHL Needs To Flaunt What It's Got
by Andrew Loughrey, Detroit Correspondent
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
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