For a league that missed an entire season due to labor strife only three years ago, and already sat on the periphery of American sports prior to that, the NHL is thriving. Attendance is up, ratings are soaring, particularly in this season’s playoffs, now reports say league revenue is at an all-time high. The Stanley Cup finals features the biggest star in the game and the craziest hockey town in the country, a dream matchup for the league.

Last weekend, with two Stanley Cup berths on the line, NBC scored a 1.5 and 1.7 national rating on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Both increases over comparable games last season, neither a bonanza compared to other sports programming. The NBA destroyed it on Sunday with over 6 for the Celts and Cavs game. Saturday, the WNBA recorded a .9 for its opening game.

Versus ratings are up double-digit percents over last year, NBC is up, though not as much, but the ratings were so bad its not hard to go up. And even a big increase over a very small number still leaves ratings extremely low. Ratings in the local markets of teams playing are setting records, and interest is extremely high. The national ratings show hockey still has a long way to go on the national landscape.

The league needs to develop a better marketing campaign. Year after year the NBA rolls out marketing campaigns around both the season and the playoffs that leave an indelible mark on the public. Forget this season’s slogan, the two superstar talking heads reading an impressionable playoff “poem” is an eye catcher. Love it or hate it, the message leaves an impression. You spend a minute trying to figure out who the two players are – enough to catch the eye – then get drawn by the star power, the theatrical music, the sense of competition and drama. It sets the playoff scene and showcases the players.

The NHL playoffs has the tools to market – sudden death overtime, the handshake after the series, you can even go the blood, sweat, and tears route. They need to leverage that, be creative, get the message out. Maybe I miss it because I’m not a diehard, and don’t watch Versus all day, but the NHL needs to reach the casual fan to play in the national landscape. The sport deserves better.

Start by marketing the players. Sidney Crosby is young, polished, and destined for greatness – make him the NHL’s answer to Lebron and Kobe. He’s the first NHL player in a national advertising campaign (Gatorade) for quite some time, now the league needs to leverage it make sure everyone knows Crosby. That statement is nothing new for the league, they just have not done a good enough job yet.

The NHL is embarking on an aggressive merchandise marketing campaign to sell Stanley Cup oriented gear, even allowing fans to pre-order locker room championship shirts and hats. Good thought to push it now, while interest is peaking, however the merchandise end will score big locally, not nationally. Fans in Dallas might love hockey, but want nothing to do with a Pittsburgh or Detroit T-Shirt.

Last season NBC recorded the worst prime time rating in TV history for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. To prevent such embarrassments the league needs to market the game, the players, and the playoffs hard, and reach the right audience. Credit the league for its broadband innovation and success. They need it though, lagging behind other sports in other media areas.

It’s probably too late for this season. Hockey needs better and more marketing. One interesting concept, the NHL handles most of its marketing in-house, while other leagues will hire major marketing firms to help with branding – just a thought since it works for others.


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