Hockey: Driving to the 'Net

John Collins believed the National Hockey League could be a powerful global sports brand. Now, the COO of the NHL is using digital media and splashy TV events to prove it.

John Collins knows all about the power of sports. He spent 15 years in marketing and sales with the National Football League – easily the most powerful sports brand in North America. But 3? years ago, when he joined the National Hockey League, he was taking on responsibility for a business that was widely seen as the weak sister of the major North American pro sports.

He learned to love the game as a boy growing up outside New York, occasionally making trips into Manhattan to see the New York Rangers of the early ’70s, and he believed the league was stronger and more popular than many gave it credit for. But as a marketing man, Collins also knows that perception is reality. The challenge was to unlock the potential, and change the widespread opinion among journalists and sponsors that the NHL is a perennially embattled enterprise.

He focused on creating major TV-friendly events like the annual Winter Classic, pitting traditional rivals like Boston-Philadelphia and Chicago-Detroit in a January game played outdoors. And he poured energy and resources into the web, making the deepest, slickest and most engaging website of any major sports league, offering fans copious stats, streaming game highlights, real-time box scores and the opportunity to watch entire games on your desktop.

The numbers do the boasting for him: a 20% rise in corporate sponsorship in 2010; attendance at 93% of arena capacity this year (the third-highest figure ever); 800,000 fans signed up to follow the league on Facebook and Twitter in a single season; unique visitors to up by 32%; and advertising on NHL media up 37% from last season. While most of the attention still goes to the handful of franchises that struggle to make money, Collins and his team have created a business success story that is only starting to come into focus.

CB: You walked through the door here in 2006, so tell me a little bit about the business and the challenges that you encountered.

JC: It was late in 2006. When I met Commish, he laid it out this way. He said, “We’ve got the financial structure right so that everybody can compete, and we think that’s the model that’s going to be the best for the franchises and ultimately for the fan base because every team has a chance to win every year.” So that was No. 1. Two was basically they made the changes to the game, open it up, make it faster, allow guys like Patrick Kane to actually play in this league and be successful as opposed to the old style. Now it was time to begin to focus on really the business, and how to grow it and how to drive it. As we looked at it, what was really lacking was this idea of national scale, that it was a $2.6-billion business … that with 22 million people going into the arenas, with a million video games being sold each year, a significant billion-dollar retail licensing business…it didn’t feel like a $2.6-billion business. It didn’t feel as big as it was. In the sports business, the first metric that anybody looks at is national television ratings, and really the national U.S. television ratings were really defining the people’s perception of the success of the league. We felt like we have the unique opportunity among all the major sports leagues to aggressively leverage technology and the changing media consumption habits. We knew that our fan base is more tech-savvy. Hockey is a global sport, and the best players in the world want to play in the NHL. So we felt like that was really a positioning that we could build on. We said, the way that we’re going to begin to focus is really a two-pronged strategy. One is on big events like the Winter Classic – but not just the Winter Classic – and, really, digital media.

CB: It sounds like this is about turning people more into fans of the game rather than just fans of specific teams.

JC: It absolutely is. The first piece of this was really an activation strategy. We have this passionate fan base who loves hockey as much as the core fans in the NFL love the NFL, but when we look at their behaviour on sort of these national measurements, they’re not doing as much, they’re not watching as many games. Nobody ever cancelled their Super Bowl party because they didn’t like the two teams that were playing the game, right? That’s what we’re looking to create. We’re looking to create moments where you follow your team, that’s where your passion sort of sits, but there are moments where you stretch beyond that and you just become a passionate follower of the sport.

CB: Why is digital such a focal point?

JC: Well, in the United States we felt like fans had, really, this voracious appetite for content, and we could uniquely step into that void and begin to deliver content across platforms and in ways that they just weren’t getting it. So you want to find out what happened with tonight’s games, rather than sitting through Sports Centre and hoping that your team will get covered, or sitting through a local news telecast, or trying to wait the next morning to see the scores in the paper, the NHL Network,, NHL Mobile were all ways to begin to really target that fan. I think the other driver was 50% of our fans don’t live in their favourite team’s home market, so if you weren’t serving those fans, you’ve basically eliminated half your fan base. So we were, again, uniquely positioned to be able to do that through digital platforms. We felt like that would be a phenomenal counterbalance to this idea of national TV ratings and would ultimately demonstrate that in fact the hockey fan base and the hockey business is significantly bigger than people’s perception of it.

CB: Is it an opportunity to bypass the gatekeepers that stand between you and the fans?

JC: I don’t know about bypassing. I think we’ve seen that it’s supplemental. … It’s designed to allow a fan to go deeper and deeper in terms of their avidity with the sport. We just launched a product last month called the NHL Vault, which has full games and condensed games. Eventually you’ll be able to take in the entire visual history of the NHL online. But we don’t see that as a replacement to TV, we see it as complementary.

CB: What’s the importance of the Winter Classic, from your perspective, as a marketer?

JC: It was one of the best demonstrations of what we were trying to do in terms of elevating the NHL brand. You know, the reason why I think it resonates is because it’s authentic. I mean, outdoor hockey, that’s the way everybody begins their experience with the game. When you think about ways to really kind of juice the business, what can you do that’s going to get some attention? NBC says, “We have a window on January 1 that we’d be willing to do something with you guys on.” We take a date that used to belong to college football and that game ends up being the highest-rated regular season game in 35 years. That’s because of NBC.

CB: I wanted to ask you about the Olympics from a marketing perspective.

JC: I would say the success of the Olympics, particularly the Canada-USA gold medal game, you had a lot of people who tuned in to watch that game who really hadn’t watched the regular season game all year. What we’re trying to figure out is how to get those people back in. We’re saying, “If you liked that, basically you’ve got that every night through the Stanley Cup playoffs.” I mean, that’s our brand, that’s our story. I think the biggest lift has been in advertising. I was on a panel with Tony Pace – who’s the CMO of Subway and is a big hockey fan. And we’ve tried to do something with Tony, really, since he’s been in that position, and every time he’s kind of brought it to his franchisee board, they’ve said, “You know, it doesn’t really work for all of us. It may work in certain markets, it doesn’t work on the national footprint that Subway has.” After the gold medal game, those same franchisees called Tony and said, “Maybe it’s time to take a look at something involving the NHL.” And in fact, they’re one of the big sponsors of the NHL playoffs. Whether or not that experience is enough to overcome some of the operational issues having to do with shutting down the league for two weeks, you know, we’ll have to see.

CB: What’s next? You’ve come a long way in three years. If we’re talking three years from now, what will we be talking about?

JC: Well, I think we’re going to be on the same strategy. I think there’s a lot more room to grow in terms of events. I think we’re learning a lot in terms of how to serve the fan and what kind of content they want. We have very aggressive growth plans. I think we’ve sort of hit on this [online] experience that rivals anything you see in any medium for any sport. And I think the international opportunity is one that ownership has to spend significantly more time figuring out, tapping into it. We’re in the midst of presenting a plan to the commissioner and ultimately the board, probably at the meetings in June, which begins to articulate what we think the opportunity is for the league internationally. I think all that’s really important, not just to drive revenues but to protect the growth and the position of the sport for the next 10, 15, 20 years.