After years of being ignored by advertisers, lambasted by the media and neglected by the American public, the National Hockey League has decided it wants to be recognized for something besides bench-clearing brawls and treacherous surnames.
So in a bid to shed its reputation as the poor cousin of professional sports leagues, the NHL is going on the offensive. It has hired Gary Bettman, who last week became the league's first commissioner after leaving his post as the No. 3 man at the National Basketball Association. It has awarded new franchises to marketing savvy companies Walt Disney and Blockbuster Entertainment in Anaheim, Calif., and Miami, respectively. (Expansion will increase the league's presence in the lucrative Sun Belt to five teams - two in Florida, three in California).
The league has also instituted rule changes this season that have reduced on-ice violence. It is working to end long-running boardroom disputes between the Canadian and American factions that have ruled the NHL since its inception 76 years ago. And it has hired Boston agency Arnold Fortuna Lawner & Cabot to develop an image campaign.
Those close to the league are optimistic these moves will be the start of something big - including broader television exposure. 'Only being a regional business in the past has hurt us with TV, yet now we're on the brink of gaining many new blue-chip advertisers and widely expanding our fan base,' says Steve Ryan, president of NHL Enterprises, the league's marketing and licensing division. 'While the other leagues have peaked or are in decline, hockey is hot. It's the sport of the '90s.'
Some marketers concur, but most believe the NHL still has a long way to go before it can assume that moniker. It remains the only 'major' league without a network television contract. It's also short on true media stars, especially when it comes to American players.
'With players only on the ice one-third of the time, and never seen as youngsters, like basketball players are, it's impossible to form attachments with them,' insists sports marketing consultant Marty Blackman.
A case in point is the league's All-Star Game, televised last Saturday on NBC. The average sports fan would be hard-pressed to name more than a handful of the participants (the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Gretzky is the league's only player with mainstream appeal). The NHL hopes to take a page from the NBA's star-system book, but of the most likely candidates, Brett Hull lacks charisma, Mario Lemieux is battling Hodgkin's disease and heralded rookie Eric Lindros has accumulated a truckload of negative publicity.
'We need to magnify our stars if we're going to boost our TV ratings,' says Skip Prince, the NHL's executive director of broadcast services. 'The sporting public (and the advertising community) loves a game through its players, and we just haven't done a good enough job on TV or elsewhere in showcasing our stars.'
Television could help solve the problem, but the league's performance in its first year back on ESPN has been dismal (a 0.9 average rating). Says Troy Miller, a marketing supervisor for athletic wear maker Starter, 'Hockey just hasn't caught on nationally, and the harsh reality might be that there aren't enough true hockey fans to support the game.'
Part of Bettman's mandate is to avoid repeating the league's marketing blunders. For instance, the NHL had a golden opportunity to capture advertisers and fans after the U.S. Olympic team's 'Miracle on Ice' in 1980. But, says Tony Andres, a media consultant who was the NHL's director of advertising in the 1970s, the provincial team owners 'just weren't concerned with national promotion.' Content with filling their own arenas, they sold TV rights to local cable outfits.
Bettman's primary mission is to get the league a network TV contract. To do that, he may need to clean up the game even further. 'Along with other advertisers, we're encouraging the league to be much tougher against the fighting,' says Steve Smith, director of media at American Express. 'The sport will become user-friendly if it cleans up the violence.'
He should get help in this area from progressive owners like the Kings' Bruce McNall. Blockbuster's Wayne Huizenga could also be a plus. But the biggest assist should come from Mickey Mouse. Disney gives the NHL instant identification with 'family entertainment' and a proven marketer in Michael Eisner.
Tom Staggs, Disney's director of corporate development, wouldn't comment on reports that the company brought a team to Anaheim to get the city's OK for the expansion of Disneyland. Regardless of motives, though, Disney has publicly lauded hockey's future. And if the imagineers believe, that alone may be enough to get the NHL off thin ice.
Ed Kiersh is a freelance writer based in New York.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)