NHL.com Skates to Ads Tapping Fans’ Digital Savvy

With a new season underway, fan interest in the National Hockey League appears on the rise; attendance and TV ratings are up, and every team is still in the playoff hunt. Even the league’s digital properties are on a scoring streak.

On Oct. 8, NHL.com launched an eight-episode branded entertainment video series created exclusively for advertiser Timberland dubbed Tough Guys, which profiles some of the sport’s renowned hard-core athletes. That series is part of an extensive Web buy for Timberland, which is running pre-roll spots and bumper messages prior to each episode, and executed a homepage takeover of the site last week.

The Timberland deal follows close behind a similar custom package the NHL built for Electronic Arts. Back on Sept. 26, the site posted original video content featuring NHL commentators previewing the new season, which began on Oct. 1. Instead of standard video ads, footage from EA’s new NHL ’10 game was interspersed within actual game highlights during the show.

According to Larry Gelfand, senior vp, media sales for NHL Digital, these deals represent the culmination of the NHL’s commitment to deepen its digital offerings back in 2006, when it brought on former NFL exec John Collins to serve as executive vp, corporate sales and marketing. Now the league’s chief operating officer, Collins and his team zeroed in on research that painted NHL fans as younger, more affluent and tech-savvy than fans of other major sports. For example, per Simmons Media Research, 92 percent of fans own a PC, and 36 percent have digital cable. “That gave us the gumption to innovate in digital,” said Gelfand.

Since then, the league unveiled a major site redesign centered around video which has since been adopted by all 30 of individual team sites. In the meantime, the NHL inked distribution deals with YouTube, Hulu, Yahoo Sports,  iTunes and others.

At its peak last season, NHL.com reached close to 13 million unique users (45 percent of that in the U.S.). And in the first week of this season, traffic spiked 68 percent.

Keith Wachtel, NHL senior vp, corporate sales and marketing, said that unlike other league sites, NHL.com serves as the main media vehicle for underserved hockey fans. “If you ask the average fan where they get their NFL information, they’ll say ESPN.com or the local paper,” he said. “For our fans, they start on NHL.com. There’s a completely different mind-set.”

It’s this mind-set, along with fans’ digital affinity, that Wachtel pitches to advertisers. Last year, the site created a 12-episode Web series shot exclusively for the U.S. Army called Hockey’s Finest, which has emerged as something of a signature deal for the site. Now, Wachtel expects to execute four or five major custom sponsorships each year.