Opportunity knocks for NHL to re-open doors to fans, advertisers after lengthy lockout
Showing Gary Battman's funny side might help, as would discounts and something more original than just saying sorry
Vancouver Canuck fans are both patient and loyal, and likely won't require much "love" from the National Hockey League to win them and Towel Power back back following a 113-day lockout. However, getting fans across the league to forgive and forget may take some work, including promotions, discounts and deals with advertisers.
Photograph by: Ric Ernst, PNG Files
Would disgruntled hockey fans forget their gripes against the National Hockey League if the league poked fun at itself in new commercials?
How about humorous television spots featuring stoic-and-not-exactly-beloved NHL commissioner Gary Bettman?
That’s the kind of outside-the-box marketing the league has to consider now to win back fans and sponsors turned off by the 113-day lockout, according to Langara School of Management instructor Aziz Rajwani.
“There’s an opportunity here to use riskier, edgier marketing strategies,” he said this week. “Bettman is not particularly well liked by fans and no one would ever say he is a funny person, though he might be in private.
“But what if you did something really funny and edgy with him? It might work.”
Bettman apologized to fans this week for disrupting their beloved game and clubs have followed his lead en masse.
The Vancouver Canucks have promised to reward loyal fans and sponsors for sticking with the club but refuse to discuss details of the pending season until players ratify the new Collective Bargaining Agreement on Saturday.
“I’m not allowed to get into the specifics of that but we know we have the best fans in the game and we’re going to do everything we can to show them how much we missed them,” Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault told reporters on Friday.
The NHL also refused to discuss any win-back-the-fans strategies this week but one league official said that in a shortened season, any league initiatives would probably be less effective than club strategies employed in the 30 different markets.
The Pittsburgh Penguins have already announced ticket holders will get vouchers for free non-alcoholic concession items at their first four home games and the team will hold a contest for fans to win prizes in the week leading up to their home opener. The Buffalo Sabres are offering fans 50 per cent off selected team merchandise.
Rajwani said Canucks fans and sponsors can expect financial breaks to make up for the lost games but feels the best way to win them back is to give them more access to players.
He said the fact so many Canucks — including the Sedin twins and Kevin Bieksa — chose to train in Vancouver during the lockout helped keep the team in the spotlight and created a sense of goodwill in the community.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said the return of NHL hockey is “huge” for the economic, social and cultural fabric of the city and doubts it will be a hard sell to win fans back.
“It wasn’t fun to lose hockey for a bunch of months but if things get back on track and the Canucks show up full of fire, I think we’ll have a great season and everyone will be back on the bandwagon,” he said.
Robertson said he personally enjoyed watching junior hockey and paying attention to “the rest of the hockey universe” during the lockout but stressed there’s nothing like NHL competition.
Sponsors were as reluctant as the league this week to discuss how they plan to hit the ground running when the season starts on Jan. 19 but B.C. Lottery Corp. spokesman Chris Fairclough expects radio campaigns to promote betting on NHL games will begin next week.
Betting on hockey games accounted for about 30 per cent of the $53.7 million wagered on Sports Action during the 2011-12 fiscal year.
A new online sports wagering option has resulted in a five-per-cent increase in total sports betting through BCLC this year and Fairclough expects a bigger bump in sports wagers once the NHL returns.
“Hockey is just one of dozens of different sports people can wager on but we’re definitely very excited to have it back in our product offering,” he said.
Los Angeles Lakers senior vice-president Tim Harris, who managed the team’s business operations through the challenges of the 2011 NBA lockout, said it didn’t take long for fans to get over their gripes about millionaire players fighting billionaire owners over money.
“You heard that kind of grumbling during the lockout but the fans moved on pretty quickly,” he said. “Once we started playing, the grumbling was all about wins and losses and players performing or underperforming.”
The NBA lockout delayed the start of the season by two months and forced the regular 82-game schedule to be cut to 66 games.
The Canucks say they lost very few season ticket holders because of the lockout this year and Harris said that was exactly the same situation with his club in 2011. He said the Lakers didn’t lose a single sponsor because of the work stoppage, but the team had to give them special consideration when the season resumed.
“In most cases, we reallocated their assets,” he said. “We figured out the value of what they lost in the shortened season and gave them other things to make things whole.”
Harris said those “other things” included in-stadium promotions, Internet and social media promotions and hospitality offerings.
“The key for us was staying in contact with sponsors and not keeping them in the dark,” he said.
The lockout probably cost the Canucks about $60 million in lost revenue this season.
A Forbes magazine report estimated the team generated $143 million in revenue last season, with gate receipts accounting for half that amount over a full 82-game season and three playoff games at Rogers Arena.
Rajwani feels the Canucks will experience “short-term pain for long-term gain” as the NHL and players now have a decade of labour peace to grow revenues from an expected base of about $3.3 billion during the next 82-game season in 2013-14.
“I think the Canucks and all the other Canadian teams have a bright future now but that’s not the case for every team in the league,” he said, noting ongoing financial issues in markets such as Phoenix and Florida.
Rajwani said the positive side to a shortened NHL season this year is that more teams should be involved in a late-season playoff hunt, creating greater fan interest in more markets.
“The sprint for the playoffs will create more excitement and that’s a marketing opportunity,” he said. “Each game matters more this season so there should be more interest in every game. That’s what makes the 16-game NFL regular season so popular — every game is huge.”
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