Tag Archives: nhl

NHL Skating on Thin Ice With Many Supporters Post Lockout

February 4, 2013

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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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How Average Players Use Twitter and a Human Voice to Become Social Media Superstars

February 22, 2012

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Have you heard of Brandon McCarthy, Paul Bissonette, Pat McAfee, and Antonio Brown? If you're like most people, you probably haven't. We're not exactly talking about Kobe Bryant or Derek Jeter here. Why would you know anything about a middle of the road starting pitcher, a left-winger with 5 career goals, a punter, and a wide receiver who has been a starter for exactly one season? If you happen to run an organization or handle public relations for an organization though, you should get to know them because there's plenty you can learn about communications, public relations, and branding from them.

Take a look at their Twitter feeds – they talk about partying, drinking, farts, pranks, and the women they go out with. They make fun of their teammates, curse, and share personal pictures. They're pretty much your typical PR person's worst nightmare. They don't speak in sanitized sports jargon ("we just took it one game at a time out there and gave it all we had"), they don't attempt to drive traffic to the team's website or sell merchandise, and they don't try to cultivate their "personal brands." They are, for better or worse, acting like themselves and talking to their fans on Twitter like they might talk with a group of their friends.

Thing is, they're GOOD at it. And the very reason they're good at it is because of, not in spite of, their complete and total disregard for traditional PR best practices. In the same way the Pittsburgh Penguins have actual players deliver season tickets to their fans, the Green Bay Packers players ride little kids' bikes to practice, or baseball players toss foul balls to their fans in the stands, these players aim to forge a personal connection with their fans. They're good at using Twitter because they're not interested in using it for PR or marketing or branding – they're using it simply because they enjoy interacting with their fans. 

If you've read one of my favorite books, The Cluetrain Manifesto, you'll recognize that this desire to get beyond the marketing and the branding and speak in a human voice is one of the major tenets of the book.

"Markets do not want to talk to flacks and hucksters. They want to participate in the conversations going on behind the corporate firewall."

Though this certainly applies to professional athletes and their fans, the ability to speak in a human voice and forge real relationships with your fans and customers is one that translates easily to the business world as well.

Do yourself a favor and check out the Twitter feeds for some of the less well-known athletes on Twitter and I bet you'll start re-thinking some of those PR and marketing best practices you've read about. What makes them so effective? 

  1. They're honest. [tweet https://twitter.com/BizNasty2point0/status/168081177054412801] Politically correct? Ummm…not exactly. Honest? Definitely.
  2. They're real. [tweet https://twitter.com/Mrs_McCarthy32/status/171452231684591618] This is just one of many conversations between Brandon and his wife. This is a conversation I could totally see myself having with my wife too. Rather than just being some rich ballplayer living a life beyond my imagination, I've gotten a glimpse of him that I'd never get in an interview or on the back of a baseball card.
  3. They put their money where their mouth is. One of my favorite stories of the year was this one where Antonio Brown answered a fan's offer to go out to lunch which then led to an actual friendship. This is a story about a player going above and beyond what's expected of him. He realizes the esteem that his fans hold in him and
  4. They're funny. [tweet https://twitter.com/PatMcAfeeShow/status/166997616498974720] A little humor goes a long way – this particular Tweet was retweeted more than 50 times, but McAfee's feed is filled with funny Tweets like this.
  5. They're random.  [tweet https://twitter.com/BizNasty2point0/status/167862185110941696] Somehow, I don't think this Tweet would have made it past the approval chain in a typical branding campaign. It doesn't direct anyone to a website, it doesn't hawk any merchandise, it's totally random and shows his followers a totally different side of himself.

Now think about your employees. Think about how (or even if) they're communicating with your customers.  Are they allowed, nay, encouraged, to be honest, real, empowered, funny, and random or are they hampered by restrictive policies, approval processes, and message platforms? Instead of worrying about the damage your idiot employees will cause by using social media, maybe you should look into why you've hired and developed idiot employees? Instead of trying to mitigate the trouble they may get into, consider the opportunities that exist. Organizations have become so risk-averse so as to not offend anyone that they end up saying nothing to everyone. 

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Competing on the Field But Cooperating in the Office

August 30, 2011

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It’s not difficult to find examples of sports teams using social media. From the player (Gilbert Arenas’ landmark blogging in 2006) to the team (the Red Sox using Twitter to give away free tickets during a rain delay) to the league (the NHL’s tweetups), social media has gone from being an innovative marketing tactic to a must-have component of any marketing strategy. League and individual team marketing functions are hard at work thinking up all kinds of new ways to use social media to increase fan loyalty, buy tickets, buy merchandise, and watch/listen to the games via myriad devices. Here’s the rub – in any one league, this brainstorming is happening, sometimes 30 times over, in the league office and in each of the team’s front offices because there’s no single platform where team and league staff are sharing this information.

Enterprise 2.0 conference, Jun 2009 - 26

There are plenty of case studies of sports leagues and teams using social media for marketing purposes - where are the examples of using social media to improve league and team collaboration?

Disappointingly, a search for examples where teams, leagues, or college conferences are using social media to communicate and collaborate internally yields a much shorter, less relevant list. For all of the media attention that’s heaped on these leagues and teams for their use (or lack thereof) of social media to communicate with fans and the media, internal collaboration amongst league and team front office staff is still ruled by phone calls, shared drives, and emails. The personal relationships established among front office staff at games and league functions have become the de facto collaboration mechanism for the PR, customer service, ticket sales, media relations, broadcasting, and other front office staff. Despite all the gains in using social media for marketing, the sports industry, by and large, has failed to capitalize on the opportunities social media can bring them internally.

As I mentioned in a previous post, there are actually a lot of similarities between the sports industry and the government when it comes to using social media. While the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Marine Corps all maintain fierce loyalty to their respective service branch, they also realize they are all ultimately fighting for the same cause, for the same team, and it’s up to the Department of Defense (DoD) to bring all of these individuals together under one mission.  Similarly, the Penguins, Flyers, Bruins and Capitals are rivals on the ice, yet they all realize that when push comes to shove, they all play in the same league and all need to work together to grow the game. Unfortunately, while the DoD is using wikis to conduct intelligence analysis and social networking to get new employees up to speed more quickly, professional sports leagues continue to rely on tools that are inaccessible, unsearchable, and unorganized to collaborate with one another. By relying on personal relationships instead of using open platforms that connect teams and leagues together, professional sports leagues are missing a golden opportunity to reduce duplication, cut costs, increase morale, and increase employee performance.

What if leagues and conferences were able to create a common platform where all of their teams could collaborate with one another, sharing best practices and lessons learned?
Wouldn’t that be better than relying on phone calls and emails to share this information?

What if each league had an idea generation platform a la Manor Labs where staff could submit ideas that would be discussed and voted upon by their colleagues across the league?
Wouldn’t that be better than sending around “what do you think of this?” emails?

What if each league had one shared platform accessible to all of the communications staff from each of the teams where things like marketing campaigns, communications templates, and results could be uploaded and shared?
Woudn’t that work better than digging through old emails and shared drive files?

What if the league stopped mandating policies and technical platforms on their teams and instead co-created these policies and collaborated on the best technical platforms?
Wouldn’t it be better to be seen as a partner instead of an adversary?

Competition on the field and collaboration in the office isn’t a new idea. This idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts has permeated the sports landscape this year. From revenue sharing across all teams in the NFL’s latest collective bargaining agreement (the teams that bring in more money share revenue with the small market clubs) to the new conference realignments happening in college (Florida and Georgia may be rivals, but you can bet their rooting for each other if they’re both playing teams from the Big Ten), leagues and teams have realized that a healthy league makes for healthy teams. It’s hard for the average fan to understand, but just because Terrell Suggs and Hines Ward may not be the best of friends doesn’t mean that the Steelers communications staff and Ravens communications staff are necessarily at each other throats too.

What if the sports leagues and teams took advantage of these Enterprise 2.0 technologies, learned from what’s been done in other similar organizations and used technology to enable this collaboration to take place not just at the collective bargaining level, but at the day-to-day level?

Perhaps the more important question is…what happens if they don’t?

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