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NHL Skating on Thin Ice With Many Supporters Post Lockout

February 4, 2013

Public Relations

A version of this article was written in mid-January and originally appeared in the February issue of PRWeek (subscription required)

On January 6, after 113 days, 625 missed regular-season games, and countless starts and stops, the National Hockey League ended its third lockout in 19 years.

After the last lockout, the NHL launched the “My NHL” campaign which portrayed hockey as a battle and its players as warriors. They also wrote thank you notes on the ice at every arena and increased their promotional giveaways. Marketers may point to the increased attendance and TV ratings that followed as evidence of this campaign’s success, but most people seem to think that had more to do with the very clear fundamental changes in how the league operated, including a salary cap, elimination of the two-line pass, shootouts, and a draft lottery.

Now, the league has to be wondering if fans will come back as quickly, if at all. After all, fans then were almost willing to accept the lockout if it meant the league would be healthier over the long-term. This time, fans view the situation as a greedy money grab by owners unwilling to reign in their spending. Nike’s new “Hockey is Ours” commercial even celebrates this “us vs. them” mentality by highlighting a defiant attitude among players and fans.

What the NHL faces isn’t simply a PR, marketing or image problem. This is a trust problem, with fans feeling betrayed more than once in less than a decade. Earning trust back won’t happen with commercials and thank you notes. It’s going to be about what the league does not what it says. Sure, the hardcore hockey fans will probably soon forgive, but the casual fan—the fan that’s been so responsible for the success of the league over the last ten years—isn’t going to be so ready to spend money on a league that seems to have so little regard for the people keeping it in business.

Here are five ways the NHL can start the process of repairing its damaged reputation:

  1. Start communicating with fans NOW MORE. Open up communication as soon as possible. Give fans details about the new agreement, what it means to their favorite teams, and how it makes the game better. At this point, over-communicate – not with marketing messages, but with contrite honesty.
  2. Create a space for fans to vent. The NHL should create an online space for fans to vent their feelings about the lockout, ask questions (which actually get answered) and offer ideas for improving the league. While some of the discussion will be rooted in frustration, the league is potentially opening up an opportunity to learn more about its core fan base and maybe even stumble on a good idea or two. Get the fans talking and keep them engaged, even if they’re hurt.
  3. Stop insulting fans and offer them stuff they actually care about. Thirty-percent-off merchandise and free parking for five games isn’t going to cut it. Make NHL Center Ice free for everyone. Offer free parking for the rest of the year. Offer free tickets to kids under the age of 13 – this is going to be your future fan base. Lower ticket prices across the board (e.g., if you lose half the season, make tickets half price, etc.).
  4. Increase transparency. Create content that pulls the veil back on league finances and operations. Now that the lockout is over, force teams to open their books. Hire someone to translate it into non-insider language to explain how the league is more viable now, and better yet, how this will ensure that yet another lockout isn’t going to happen again in ten years. The NHL already has a blueprint for how to do this – Brendan Shanahan’s video series explaining penalties and suspensions is a fantastic example of how to make complex things consumable to the average fan.
  5. Ramp up your community relations. All teams should have their players deliver the fans their tickets like the Penguins do. Hold open tryouts where fans can come and try out for the team like the Minnesota Wild have done. Go beyond sponsoring local teams and leagues and get involved with them, like the Nashville Predators did in the video below. Do all of this and more. Much, much more.
This was the second long lockout in less than ten years. Sure, some fans will come back as soon as that first puck is dropped, but to repair relationships with the vast majority of fans, the league is going to have to go beyond apologies, press conferences and tweets and show the fans that they care. It doesn’t matter what the league says, but what they do. If the league wants fans’ dollars (and loyalty) back, they’re going to have to first win back their fans’ trust.
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About sradick

I'm Vice President, Director of Public Relations at Brunner in Pittsburgh. Find out more about me here (http://steveradick.com/about/).

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