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IEG In The News

With NHL Season Still on Ice, Marketers Find New Ways to Connect

AdAge.com, November 05, 2012

By E.J. Schultz

Bauer Hockey last month was on the verge of launching its first brand campaign in 17 years. The company -- which makes sticks, skates and other hockey gear -- had shot hours of footage of pro players at a rink in Atlantic City over the summer. There were action-packed skating scenes, as well as off-ice activity filmed at a ballroom that was transformed to look like a locker room. It was readying the work to debut as the NHL's mid-October season opener neared.

One problem: The more than 20 players filmed for the ad never played that first game. And they remain sidelined as the NHL labor lockout drags on.

"At first you're a little frustrated," said Steve Jones, Bauer's director of global marketing, recalling his emotions as the lockout date approached. But the company and ad agency Olson shifted strategy on the fly, making what you might call, in hockey parlance, a power play. The company went forward with the campaign but replaced the pro footage with shots of amateurs, which were originally intended to appear along with the pro shots.

Bauer decided to "shine a light on those players that historically aren't in the spotlight," Mr. Jones said. "It ended up being a great opportunity for our brand."

The NHL has already canceled all games in November, meaning more than a quarter of the regular season schedule has now been nullified. Also, in a major blow, the league on Friday canceled the 2013 Winter Classic.

"The logistical demands for staging events of this magnitude made today's decision unavoidable. We simply are out of time," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement.

The Classic is the league's annual showcase on New Year's Day that this year was slated to feature the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at the 110,000-seat Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. One of the biggest losers of the cancellation will be Bridgestone, which sponsors the game.

Also on the hook is NBC, which is beginning a 10-year deal to televise games, including the Classic, for a reported $1.8 billion.

In a statement to Ad Age, NBC Sports said: "We have a large amount of quality live-event programming, including soccer, boxing, college hockey and college basketball, that will air in place of NHL games. We look forward to presenting the NHL to its fans as soon as the labor situation is resolved."

For big NHL official corporate sponsors, which include Molson, Coors Light, Gatorade, Verizon and Geico, the damage so far has probably been minimal, said Jim Andrews, VP-content strategy for IEG, a sponsorship, research and consulting firm owned by WPP. "The early part of the season is not typically where they concentrate their promotional and their activation activities," he said. "For a lot of them, it becomes a much more critical situation the longer the lockout goes," he added, especially if it wipes out big events such as the Classic and All-Star Game.

Molson in Canada has shifted its sponsorship attention to "other levels of hockey," such as the American Hockey League, Molson Coors spokesman Gavin Thompson said in an email. "We are also very aware that there are a lot of other great ways to connect with our Canadian beer drinkers outside of hockey," he said, such as the Canadian Football League.

But for a company like Bauer, which targets young hockey players, the early part of the season is more critical because that's when consumers start buying gear. "It's a much bigger loss," Mr. Andrews said.

Because of the lockout, Bauer has withheld digital ad buys on NHL.com and NBCSports.com. Also in doubt is a regional TV ad buy originally slated to air during the Winter Classic in several big hockey markets such as Toronto, Chicago and Boston.

But Bauer has plowed ahead with other elements of the campaign, called "Own the moment." The company is sticking with plans to air a TV spot on TSN, a national sports channel in Canada, during the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship at the end of December. Bauer is also running print and digital ads in hockey publications and making out-of-home buys in amateur arenas. On Twitter, the company is plugging the hashtag "#ownthemoment," which it says has gained popularity among amateurs.

Mr. Jones went so far as to downplay the NHL's importance for the campaign, suggesting that NHL content was always meant to be a smaller part of the media mix. Bauer actually grew market share during the last lockout, he said.

In 2012, Bauer reported revenue growth of 23% to $375 million, now capturing 52% global market share in ice hockey equipment, according to its annual report.

"Obviously from a viability standpoint, you want to have your products on the best players in the world skating up and down the ice during the NHL," Mr. Jones said. "But that's 600 players," he added. "There are 6 million kids playing. They need hockey equipment."

And that's accomplished by going to where the players live. "So we want to make sure our advertising and marketing message is seen repeatedly in arenas where kids go five, six, seven days a week into their local rink to play."

"It's not all about the NHL," Mr. Jones said.