Breaking Ice: Humbled NHL Woos Back Fans
By NEIL PARMAR Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL August 8, 2005; Page B1
Returning to the ice after a 16-month absence caused by a labor dispute, the National Hockey League faces a new challenge: winning back disgruntled fans. The NHL's answer? Overwhelm them with kindness.
In advance of the dropping of the puck in the first games Oct. 5, hockey teams have slashed ticket prices and, in some cases, handed out thousands of free tickets, something rarely seen in professional sports. Teams have taken out full-page ads in newspapers thanking fans for putting up with the lockout. And in an effort to lure new followers, the league is giving the game a make-over with a series of rules changes, a classier-looking logo and the working slogan: "A Whole New Game."
For the first time, the National Hockey League and the NHL Players' Association have entered into a joint marketing partnership in an attempt to woo fans. The two entities, which usually operate separately, will craft a "nontraditional, very aggressive" ad campaign, an NHL spokeswoman says, noting that details are still being finalized.
"The worst thing we could do for hockey is to dwell on what happened this year," says Charlie Jacobs, executive vice president of the Boston Bruins. Rather than continue apologizing to fans, "We have to talk about our players, our game ... and [build] the excitement over our product," Mr. Jacobs says.
To court unhappy fans, some teams are cutting ticket prices. The Montreal Canadiens have set aside about 4,800 tickets -- 23% of the total available -- that will sell for US$24.72, a sharp discount to the usual price. Teams in struggling markets, where the sport has failed to draw large crowds, are being even more aggressive. The Buffalo Sabres, for instance, have cut ticket prices 12% to 28%, the largest one-time reduction in the team's 36-year history.
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks has a new outreach program to get young school kids interested in the game by introducing them to players and handing out free tickets to games. The California team is also relying on a few gimmicks to boost early-season sales: People who buy two tickets get two more free, while season ticket holders will receive free food and parking at the first three games. "Everybody has to do what works in their market," says Tim Ryan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the team.
Indeed, without a new playbook, hockey faces a dim future. TV audiences for hockey games had been shrinking in the U.S. well before the lockout, according to Nielsen Media Research. Even in Canada, where the NHL first formed in 1917, the lockout managed to help erode a previously solid fan base. Since 2003, the number of Canadian sports fans older than 12 identifying hockey as one of their favorite sports has dropped to 55% from 68%, according to Solutions Research Group Consultants Inc.
In addition to the discounts and freebies, NHL "teams must take on an unprecedented service mentality" by retraining customer-service employees to better handle disgruntled fans, says Robert Cornilles, president of Game Face Inc. The Tualatin, Ore., consultancy is working with six NHL teams to recruit new employees for in-house marketing efforts. It is also coaching some of its players on how to win back corporations that used to sponsor teams.
"Anyone can take out a newspaper ad, but the human touch is what corporate sponsors and fans need right now," Mr. Cornilles says.
Some teams have gotten a jump-start. Throughout the lockout, the Boston Bruins management ranks combed through blogs and emails and met with their season ticket advisory board and focus groups made up of fans. Mr. Jacobs says the top complaint across the league, was that players -- some of whom frowned on giving interviews and autographs -- "had become inaccessible" before the lockout. Now, some kinder, gentler teams are planning meet-and-greet sessions and celebrity hockey clinics to lure back their followers.
What's more, the NHL has already begun tapping its rising star. Last weekend, a number of events were held in Ottawa to show off young players recently signed to NHL teams. The main attraction: 18-year-old Sidney Crosby, a rookie from Nova Scotia who recently signed endorsement deals with Reebok International Ltd. and PepsiCo Inc.'s Gatorade. Mr. Crosby, known by sports commentators and fans simply as "The Next One" (in reference to Wayne Gretzky, "The Great One"), has become quite literally, the poster boy for the new season.
Other teams are overhauling their entire image. The Phoenix Coyotes have doubled their advertising budget and hired a marketing firm to conjure up a new slogan, Web site and ad campaign, says Douglas Moss, the team's president and chief operating officer.
To attract new and younger fans, the NHL is even jazzing up some of the game's rules. The new emphasis will be on "entertainment, skill and competition," according to the league. Attack zones will be expanded to quicken the pace of the game, and goalie equipment reduced to make it easier for players to score. A "shootout," which has long been popular during Olympic hockey games and in videogames spun off from the NHL, will determine the winner if a game remains tied after five minutes of overtime.
"The essence of hockey has not changed since the 1940s and we hope [these changes] are going to help," says Chris Botta, a spokesman for the New York Islanders. "We need to win over new fans. The entire sport does."