They had a great bounce for the Olympics, the NHL did. As a league, they have done more embracing and testing what works and what doesn’t in social and digital media than anyone else. They have identified a signature event and have built around it to the point where other groups (the NCAA, the WNBA, the AHL etc.) are copying the format to draw interest and eyes. They have found ways to embrace their core fans, and they have almost every large market…Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Montreal, Boston, and New York (well New Jersey, but maybe the best energing brand in hockey in the Devils)…all in the playoffs. They are finding new and innovative ways to increase the ROI for national sponsors and work together to encourage regional participation. And if you believe the spin, more people watched, logged on and bought tickets than ever before. So the question is, can the NHL ride this wave of brand growth to even more success, dollars, partners, and casual fan interest in 2010-11 and beyond? Maybe.
Yes there are issues. The solvency of some clubs, the issues with playing or not playing in the Sochi Games, and the overall national footprint with viewership on TV are all still there. But if you look to what the future of team sport may be…international, fast paced, a mix that can exploit both the digital side and the conventional platforms…then the NHL overall may be in a better spot than some people would have imagined. The other thing the league is now doing better than ever is storytelling…more and more the league is taking the stories of their players, the drama of the games, the unique rivalries that have existed…and not waiting for brands to find them, but going to brands and even new fans with their platform. Yes, the Stanley Cup has always been on parade following the season. Now it is on parade with decision makers at ad agencies, in prominent markets and around the world…a very unique platform that other sports (baseball took the championship trophy on tour this winter, and the Lombardi Trophy for the NFL should also have its own roadshow) are now starting to emulate.
Even more critical has been the franchise rebirth from a business standpoint in the major markets. Even though the New York Rangers rallied and missed the playoffs, the New Jersey Devils, at onetime a hockey success and a business and marketing afterthought, have fully embraced social media and branding in the New York marketplace, and stand poised to grow in the area much like the Chicago Blackhawks did last year from a brand perspective. Improvements and comebacks in Philly and Los Angeles also helped, and even offset the struggles of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who missed the playoffs despite their huge brand presence and deep pockets. The growth of the Washington franchise under the leadership of Ted Leonsis also doesn’t hurt the league footprint.
So what does all this mean to brand “NHL”? It means that there is great, diverse life in a brand that many thought would slide behind NASCAR and a hard-charging MLS in the sports landscape. Instead of reverting in a challenged economy, the NHL found ways to gain relevance and keep pace, and even with some financial worries, carved out another niche from which to expand. Expand not in terms of franchise locations, but in terms or ROI and general interest. Will it continue? Will struggling teams recover, will labor peace continue, will TV numbers go up and will an accord for Socchi be reached? All TBD. However one thing is pretty sure. NHL and innovation and growth may not have been mentioned together a few years ago, but in the cyclical world of sports, they certainly can be aligned now.