One of the interesting industries to cover from a marketing perspective is that of major sports leagues. The product (games) and brands (teams) receive tremendous attention and attract rabid, lifelong fans. But most of the marketing of these leagues gets little attention. We see constant SportsCenter coverage, hear that rules changes are made to the game, and might see 30-second ads to hype the leagues’ stars, but overall the marketing staff sits far down on the bench. As these leagues fight for fans in a fragmenting media market, good marketing is more important than ever. League commissioners and team owners had better wake up to this reality and invest in giving fans what they want. The National Hockey League’s (NHL) tenuous participation in the Winter Olympics is one example of where a new mentality is needed.
The NHL first took an official two-week break during the Olympics so that their stars could play for their home countries in 1998, which was 10 years after professionals were first allowed into the games. But every four years since then the NHL has warned that it might not continue this way in the future. This year, for example, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was unenthusiastic about this year’s games in Vancouver—and he casts doubt on whether he will allow players to attend the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia. He claims that the break slows down momentum of the sport, and interest in games at odd hours in Russia won’t get much interest anyway.
But what Bettman completely misses is the reality that the NHL is not as popular as it has been (or could be) and the Olympics are perhaps the league’s greatest marketing asset. The Olympics bring the attention of the world, and hockey is one of the marquee events that gets the highest buzz. This translates to ratings that are significantly higher than even the NHL Finals.
For example, the USA versus Canada matchup in the preliminary round brought 8.2 million views to MSNBC. That’s the most viewers for MSNBC since the presidential election night, and the most people in the U.S. to watch a hockey game since the 1973 Stanley Cup! And for the Gold Medal rematch game, half of all Canadians tuned in along with 27 million Americans. That’s more U.S. viewers than any World Series game since 2004 and more than any NCAA basketball Final Four since 1998.
Olympic hockey is a great example of Marketing with Meaning. It exposes the world to the sport, showcases the best players and personalities (who play in the NHL), and wraps it up in the flag of national pride and Olympic glory. It is the equivalent of the annual All-Star break, but means so much more for those looking on.
Ironically, the NHL has had some success in recent years by bending its rules and embracing change. In my book I share the example of how the NHL began a new traditional called The Winter Classic, in which a regular-season game is played between two teams in an outdoor stadium on New Year’s Day. The first game in 2008 drew more than 70,000 paying fans and outstanding TV ratings.
So why would Gary Bettman downplay the Olympics when they are renewing passion about the sport and likely boosting ratings for the second half of the season? At least one sports analyst claims that it comes down to money. Bettman and his owners don’t like their stadiums shut down and their players boosting the Olympics’ business for two weeks. But that’s incredibly shortsided. It reminds me of how the NFL penalizes cities that cannot afford to fill their stadiums by blacking out games from regular fans.
I believe that sports owners and league commissioners hurt themselves and their fans repeatedly because of a combination of hubris and a lack of marketing understanding. The hubris comes from owners’ typically large bank accounts and the fact that cities identify with their teams so closely. As evidence of the latter point, Forbes created a list of “America’s 20 Most Miserable Cities,” and frequently cited poor sports team performance as a key misery maker.
But it is ignorance of marketing fundamentals that truly hurts these franchises and the fans. Here’s hoping that the NHL and other sports leagues remember that they exist for the enjoyment of the fans, not short-term maximums in ticket sales and other fees. If you take care of fans over the long term, they will take care of you. It’s a lesson for those in the sports business, and in any business for that matter.