Actions the NHL and NHLPA need to take to win back fans in the 2013 season

ST LOUIS – In early September, with an impending work stoppage looming, hockey fans braced for what could be a long dispute leaving their Fall and Winter nights and some afternoons empty of pro hockey and an annual passion few can comprehend unless you love “the game”. Who would have thought it would take four months. As the lockout stretched to four months, hockey fans found other ways to cope without NHL competition.
Some fans found satisfaction in travelling a little further than the normal journey to witness minor pro or junior hockey while others spent time examining the college schedule. The price was a little less than the NHL game, but the value gained on what was paid provided satisfaction to fans. Attendance is up at these venues in large part to the lack of an NHL game to enjoy. Even local amateur games satisfied the passionate who love the fastest game on ice.
In my case, I found satisfaction in watching KHL action on NHL Network and the humorous banter between ESPN’s Steve Levy and Barry Melrose who called games from a studio in Connecticut, a truly hilarious viewing session made possible due to virtually zero preparation on the broadcaster’s part. I taped Canadian Hockey League games, NHL shows on the game’s past stars and events and the recent World Junior Championships from Ufa, Russia.
I have become conscious of how full parking lots of local ice rinks are and regularly enter rinks to witness games. In fact, over Thanksgiving while in Columbus, Ohio with family, I watched two high school teams play and the game was exciting. It didn’t matter who was playing; I just wanted to see live hockey.
Recently, I made the decision to seek further hockey satisfaction and made a very important decision. After a sixteen-year absence, I strapped on the leg pads and fastened a mask as preparation to stand atop the blue semi-circle guarding the South goal at the local ice rink in Kirkwood, Missouri. Before stepping onto the ice, the body was not agreeing with the mind. As long as it is proven otherwise with injury or soreness, the mind will be winning. I just love to play this game and always have.
It is true, I wasn‘t thinking about how my reflexes and flexibility had regressed since that last split save and sadly, the additional 25 lbs. gained since my last game would now be part of my equipment weight now added to my frame. The only other concern was how to rid myself and my equipment of the uniquely scented hockey stink from my sweaty equipment. Through it all, it was satisfying to play again and truth be told, I did pretty well. As I like to say, I played well enough to enjoy it.
This brings me to how hockey fans have been feeling the last four months. Those of us who have searched the television listings to see hockey of any type, no matter how many decades ago the game took place, understand it is really about the game itself. Many fans have found alternatives to NHL games. With the League being a largely ticket-driven sport supplying their largest chunk of revenue, the League and its’ players need to do some things to win fans back. It will not be enough to just show the “open” sign at NHL arenas and unlock the doors.
There are alternatives to NHL hockey and fans have found them. Sure I might come back to watch an NHL game live. Truthfully, though, I remain a little slower in moving toward the turnstile than the remote control to get my hockey fix.
The NHL and its’ players are going to take a financial hit beyond what they have already lost this season and likely beyond. The focus should be on mitigating the damage and building for the long-term as quickly as possible. The forthright efforts taken now will reduce the long-term risk and build credibility. This effort must include the sponsors who have suffered by committing dollars to the NHL teams when they could have been spent in other places.
One way to start is by saying “Sorry” to everyone adversely affected by this work stoppage and genuinely meaning it. This includes the arena workers, team staffs, fans and businesses around the arena. How about the leader of each franchise along with the NHLPA rep for each team jointly apologizing, asking for forgiveness and wishing for the fans to give them a chance to make things right from here on out before each team’s home game? How am I kidding, but it would go a long way in my mind. You just cannot “skate” things off.
So this is an effort by a marketer, lover of the greatest game on ice (or greatest game period) in hopes the League and its’ players come together to do more than just etch the “Thank You Fans” logo into the ice along the blue lines.
1.)       TICKET OFFERS – Extend the olive brand to fans with ticket offers, one that will provide an intro to the game in the season’s early months and a bounce back offer to see the game in the later months. Consider a package which includes at least two games at a discount in the per-game-price and secures some level of commitment across the season. Even consider a game-per-month package deal. Fans must have an opportunity to embrace the game again with open arms from the NHL and the players.
2.)       VALUE-ADDED PACKAGES – Combine tickets, food and merchandise – offering a package which provides value-added benefits engages groups and young families, offers in-game nourishment and allows fans to come away with merchandise which helps to reconnect them with the team. With so many entertainment options including movies, theme parks and other options, give fans a reason to walk away satisfied when they take teams up on a package offer.
3.)       INVOLVE TEAM SPONSORS – Extend ticket and package offers by driving fans to team sponsor storefront locations or through online clearing houses. The exposure to suffering sponsors would generate traffic when coupled with a purchase of their products or services in being required to capitalize on ticket lucrative offers. Sponsors need some love, lots of love in this healing process.
4.)       TEAM ALUMNI AND COMMUNITY – Involve alumni at team-sponsored events, games and within the community to drive interest and traffic. Consider local ice rinks where in many markets the youth hockey community is a critical target. Promote learn-to-play programs, offer autograph signings and promote the brand while embedding the message into the community.
5.)       SPECIAL PROMOTIONS – For promotions, from the list of those seat holders for some or all games, choose which fans get the game-worn jersey from all players who dressed for the game they just witnessed. We all know the cost of the pro jersey is much, much less than the retail price we see in catalogs and stores. Award the jersey to the fans at the end which requires them to stay until the game’s end.
          How about a randomly selected fan gets to sit on the bench or between the benches for a game? How about an honorary stick boy or stick girl for each game? Select a kid to drop the puck at each game? Have school choirs sing the national anthem at each game. Have a sponsor (a sponsor damaged by the lockout, mind you) of the night and pepper fans with the advertising and sampling opportunity. The opportunities to integrate fans into game night are endless. Get busy!
6.)       PRE-GAME AND TAILGATE PARTIES – Promote team pre-game parties and generate electricity leading up to the game. There is an opportunity to build something special out of this labor disagreement. Who says you cannot tailgate before hockey games? Hockey fans don’t mind the cold if these are held outside.
7.)       CELEBRATE TEAM AND LEAGUE LEGACY – Take the initiative to celebrate the legacy of the League and its’ teams. Involve team alumni, educate fans on visiting teams and their players, sell the image of what this new season, very different than others, means to the home team. The League should take advantage of the game’s rich history to educate and promote the game and its’ identity.
8.)       SPOTLIGHT ON STANLEY – Generate a campaign which allows the Stanley Cup to travel to all market during the season, integrate social media to the journey so fans can track where the beloved trophy travels. Announce its’ appearance at local rinks, malls, schools and other venues. Splash the community with Stanley.
9.)       AWAY GAME WATCH PARTIES – Involve a sponsor or multiple sponsors to host away game watch parties which build camaraderie among fans and drives traffic to valued sponsors. Have team officials attend these events, talk hockey, give fans a reason to feel appreciated and embraced.
10.)     UNDERSTAND THE #1 REASON THE NHL AND NHLPA NEED TO MAKE THIS WORK – Unlike other leagues who benefit from lucrative television contracts to generate revenues, the NHL needs fans to buy tickets to make things go. Without people in the seats who enter arenas with paid tickets, the future success of this League is doomed. And this needs to be carried beyond the dedicated hockey fan. The magic is in appealing to the marginal fan, one who with the right mix of magic and excitement can be hooked with the right bait. The moment the league believes it doesn’t need to primarily focus on succeeding in this effort is the moment it is doomed to fail. To show the sincerity of working together, the NHL and the NHLPA need to publicly demonstrate their commitment to working together. Start with jointly preparing to participate in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia and events such as the Winter Classic and Future All-Star Games.
Like millions of fans, I love this game. But in the last four months, I have found alternatives to enjoying NHL hockey. I am willing to return, but it is up to the league and the players to determine how quickly this happens and how much money I might part with along the way.
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