NHL, NBC Fail Local Fans

NBC ended what had become a tradition for many teams during Stanley Cup road games, hosting a viewing party at the team’s arena, when it prohibited Detroit from holding one during Game Six of the Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh. NBC didn’t comment, but its clearly an attempt to protect its ratings, and the NHL did little – and probably could do little to stop it.

It’s a slap in the face to some of the sports most loyal fans, the same fans that the NHL needs to help revive the sport. Yet another example of why the NHL should not put itself at the mercy of a broadcast partner who does not pay a significant rights fee. The network puts its own interest before that of the league and the league receives essentially nothing in return – unless you count poor marketing and harmful schedule changes.

While 20,000 fans on this one night may not sound substantial, it adds up. What about the 20,000-plus that Pittsburgh would host during the deciding Game 7? NBC probably has to cancel that as well. This mentality is what can damage the league’s repair process. Look at this from a business perspective, customers are king, the lifeblood that drives the business. In sports you need to develop a relationship so they come back when the team is not in the Stanley Cup, when the team is not winning, and so they watch NBC when the team is not playing. Ruining this night – and potentially more if they repeat this – leads to losing customers.

NBC made a short sighted decision. Instead of focusing on ratings in the Detroit market, they should have insisted on inserting themselves into the in-arena telecast. Perhaps employ local ad-sales to sell against the in-arena screen, or insist on promotional activity that benefits the network and the league. They had an opportunity to get access to the most passionate hockey fans in the country in a moment when they would be highly engaged, a great target market if I’ve ever seen one with many opportunities to benefit from it, and NBC found a way to ruin it.

And for what? Will these viewers effect the Nielsen ratings? What if they went to local bars instead, where the Nielsen system is ineffective at tracking the number of users anyway? They lose the ratings impact.

Hockey needs to focus on grassroots, bottom-up marketing. While NBC was at fault here, the league has to stop allowing league partners who provide little or no value to the league from harming fan relationships. Its time to move past this theory that the NHL needs broadcast television. What they need more of is lessons on customer service and fan experience.

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NHL

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.

Where’s the hockey game on?

Many fans living outside the local market of their favorite teams continue to ask that same question during weeknight games. Overtime playoff hockey, perhaps the most exciting part of sports, a concept the NHL should market like crazy in the US. Yet domestic viewers without the NHL PPV package missed out on the exciting overtime Game One in the Philadelphia-Montreal series last week, won by the Canadiens 4-3.

Hockey boggles the mind sometimes. Ratings go up, attendance goes up, fan interest has gained some momentum in the US, then the league makes it difficult to watch playoff games, exactly when content should be most accessible and marketable. Versus owns exclusive rights to two games per series. The NHL should avoid scheduling multiple games during the exclusive window, either stagger the start times, or use the other nights for double headers. Ratings on Versus for the first round increased from .3 to .4, NBC ratings climbed over the 1 threshold this weekend. Newly redesigned NHL.tv, featuring the NHL Online Network, garnered a 75% traffic increase since debuting before the playoffs.

Now is the time for the NHL to strike while the iron is out. The league needs to find a way to get on ESPN, or have NBC distribute weeknight games on one its cable outlets. Make the games accessible, and market the stories. Where the NBA excels with its memorable campaigns – this year the transposed faces of superstar players combined with the Where Amazing Happens moniker – the NHL fails to develop a presence. Playoff hockey is a great product, they need to reach the fans now while they have their attention. Make the games accessible, even if its streaming the games online, which comes with the ancillary benefit of drawing the international audience opening the door for new advertising and sponsorship deals, and market, market, market.

Rutgers-UConn: Who Wins in Notre Dame Football Debate?

Earlier this week UConn reached an agreement with Connecticut state legislators that allows the Huskies to enter a six-game football series against Notre Dame from 2011-2017 with the three Connecticut “home games” staged at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA, or Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. The agreement scales down the original 10-game package where Connecticut would have forfeited five home games to surrounding states, and comes days after Rutgers University rejected a similar offer from the South Bend football machine.

The Huskies elevated to Division 1-A in 2002, joined the Big East in 2004, and grabbed a share of the conference championship last season, along with its second bowl bid. On the heels of joining D-1, Connecticut taxpayers shelled out $91.2 million to build 40,000 seat Rentschler Field in East Hartford, which draws a loyal, devoted fan base for home games. Those same loyal, devoted fans who paid for the stadium get pushed aside by the almighty Irish money-making machine in this deal.

In exchange for the lost home games, UConn gains national exposure that the school hopes will help with recruiting, publicize the program, and draw revenue. On the surface it sounds good, especially given Connecticut’s incoming recruiting class ranks last in the Big East and 70th nationally according to Rivals.com, but does simply playing Notre Dame add that much value anymore.

Last season NBC ratings dipped 40% for Notre Dame broadcasts to 1.8, exactly half the 3.8 rating it enjoyed in 2005. The Peacock networks $9 million a year exclusive contract with Notre Dame expires after the 2010 season. Diminished ratings have led to softer advertising dollars. If the trend continues NBC may choose not to renew with Notre Dame, thus none of the six games in this contract guarantee national television exposure.

No longer a perennial power, Notre Dame has resorted to bully tactics to gain a competitive advantage by forcing the home field change.  The Irish played at Boston College, in a similar size stadium, multiple times, yet refused to travel to Connecticut for any games. If BC does not require a 70,000+ stadium to host the Irish, what’s wrong with Rentschler Field?

For one, Rentschler will sell out with Husky fans, a true road test, while Gillette and the Meadowlands, will have at least half Notre Dame fans. UConn’s AD can say what it wants about tickets, the Golden Domers will have a major presence in those so-called UConn home games. Second, the New York and Boston games probably will help with recruiting – it may help more with Notre Dame recruiting. With the program slipping in recent years, facing fierce competition for the best athletes, an extra game in the Metropolitan area will help the Irish establish more of a presence in the area. UConn is already here, half way between the two major metropolis’.

UConn mentions the games will help with fundraising and connecting the two big cities with alumni. I buy that, but is it worth deserting your students and local alumni and donors to do it? Still in its growing stages, if it makes sense for any team, its UConn. The annual Big East schedule can use an extra boost, and the program will take the publicity as it tries to crawl from behind the shadows of the wildly successful basketball team.

However, Rutgers, made the right decision not bowing to almighty Notre Dame. Embarking on a $102 million renovation to increase capacity to 55,000 seats, already down the block from the Meadowlands, the Scarlet Knights don’t need to back down to other programs. They put together multiple bowl seasons, just had a second-round draft pick, and convinced the coach to stay put, refuting various overtures from big schools. Recruiting continues to improve each year, and Rutgers proved it can capture the attention of New York when it fields a good team, generating buzz during its unbeaten run in 2006. As I mentioned, an solid out of conference game always helps in the BCS standings, and for the program at large, but Rutgers should not do it at the expense of building an identity at Rutgers Stadium.

Almost 20 years removed from a national championship, annually overrated both on the field and in recruiting circles, Notre Dame has arguably lost its clout to the USC’s, Ohio State’s, and LSU’s of the world. America’s fascination with the football team continues thanks to the rich history, unless, of course, Navy beats them a few more times, or god forbid, Duke wins in front of touchdown Jesus. Rutgers showed that teams no longer need Notre Dame, and made the right choice doing it. The verdict remains out on UConn’s decision. A bigger question remains, is this an omen of things to come for the Irish. Two years from now will they lose their exclusive television contract, and potentially their unique, powerful position in the BCS contract, up for renewal later this year. Stay tuned.

Masters Leaving Money on the Table

CNBC’s Darren Rovell wrote in his blog last week how the Masters is probably the most valued sports entity that tries not to make money (http://www.cnbc.com/id/24065180), citing the lack of sponsorships, reduced ticket sales, and limited merchandise. Going a step further, Augusta is missing unmatched opportunities to capitalize in digital media, both financially and expanding its fan base.

To call Augusta National conservative is a monumental understatement. The club feels it has a responsibility to uphold old-school tradition, avoiding commercialization at any cost. It took years for it to allow CBS to provide full final round coverage, or allow sponsors on premise. This year they took the plunge, partnering with ESPN for early round coverage. However, television alone no longer cuts it, evidenced by decreased ratings almost across the board in network televised sports.

The Masters did increase its live online video this year, providing live video of the Amen corner holes, complete coverage of holes 15 and 16, and one hour of complete coverage each day leading into the television broadcasts, on Masters.org and CBSSports.com. Supplementing the live video feeds with blogs, interviews, interactive games, and a mobile component, Masters.org registered 5.4 million unique visitors through the week who requested a total of 6.7 million video streams, 16% and 59% increases over last year respectively.

However, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Golf in general, particularly the Masters franchise, holds a unique position to capitalize on digital media by supplementing, rather than duplicating, television coverage. In an era where networks take wide criticism for following Tiger Woods’ every move, ignoring the rest of the field, the Masters and CBS has an opportunity to lure more golf fans by expanding live online coverage to every hole. No longer held hostage by TV decisions, viewers can create their own experience, as if they were at the tournament, watching a particular hole all day, or following a particular group.

Imagine a complete interactive experience, where a viewer watching the famous 13th hole can pull up video of past champions playing the hole, or memorable shots at the 13th hole. A devoted Freddy Couples fan has a chance to relive his performance on a given hole, then watch him play the hole live.

Take it to the next step, put a blogger on every hole for the entire tournament, or following select groups, chronicling the day as it unfolds. Connect the bloggers with fans through a social networking component. Provide a message board, let fans play a game where they guess what club a player will use, incorporate them into the event.

Though some may seem far-fetched, the opportunities are endless. If Augusta wants to continue leaving money on the table to keep the franchise non-commercial, so be it, they need to leverage this opportunity for the good of the sport. Expanding digital coverage opens the door to the younger audience, and more international exposure, two important demographics for golf, both of which the Masters inherently ignores with his old-fashioned mentality. A fan in Korea is more like to watch if they can follow K.J. Choi’s every move, from first tee right through signing his scorecard. Younger fans will flock to the interactivity, and the ability to customize the viewing will keep them tuned in, as opposed to the occasionally slow, somewhat boring TV coverage, sprinkled with feature stories that may not appeal to the entire audience.

New media allows for deeper penetration with the group I call “die-hards”, the fans already tuning in or attending the event. Golf is the rare sports event where a fan attending will see an insignificant portion of the total action because everyone plays simultaneously. Using mobile video to distribute the live streams enables these fans to follow the action around the course using their handheld devices. This year Masters.org used mobile alerts to send tee-times, pairings, scoring updates, and tournament info. Organizers can increase online and mobile video by alerting fans when a leader is putting for birdie, or if someone just hit a hole in one. Fans may want to receive a text message each time Phil Mickelson is putting, or whenever Vijay Singh tees off. Overall, it creates a more engaging experience for fans in attendance, or just not at home watching.

Money is there to be made with ad dollars online growing each day, if the Masters feels capitalizing on new media would denigrate its franchise, that’s its choice, other golf events and media outlets owning golf rights have these same opportunities. At a cross-roads where TV ratings hinge on whether Tiger plays or not, with a slight decrease in popularity and play since peaking earlier this decade, golf has a unique opportunity to leverage new media to build interest across the globe. They must take advantage before other sports reel everyone in. Hopefully they are not too rooted in tradition to see this.