Pushing the Puck
By Max Toth
American NHL broadcasts will be moving to the ESPN and TNT networks next season, which will add a whole new layer of visibility to a sport that has long lagged behind it’s “big four” counterparts.
The NHL is certainly a growing league, with a very successful expansion to Las Vegas a few years ago and a new franchise in Seattle on the horizon.
However, the NHL still has room to improve in the marketing department, and here are some ideas that can help hockey continue to grow.
There is one entity that perfectly represents the NHL’s misguided marketing strategy - Gritty. The Philadelphia Flyers “unique” mascot made giant waves when he arrived on the sports scene in 2018. Gritty definitely had a solid 15 seconds of fame, but it certainly didn’t last and definitely didn’t persuade anybody to start following hockey. It’s been long known that the NHL lacks the big personality of leagues like the NBA and NFL But instead of promoting what the NHL does have to offer, such as the incredible play of stars like Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, the league has focused on silly pursuits like Gritty or their “Weird NHL” YouTube series that compiles funny moments and bloopers from recent NHL action. That concept may sound a lot like “Shaqtin' a Fool”, a successful segment on the wildly popular “Inside the NBA” show. The problem is, as I mentioned above, the NHL is low on charisma compared to the NBA and doesn't employ anyone as interesting as “Inside the NBA” headliners Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley, so many of the "funny" moments on “Weird NHL” tend to fall flat.
But while I may be making it sound like personality equals popularity, that's not always true.
Think about someone like Patrick Mahomes. He’s gained worldwide recognition for his exploits with the NFL Kansas City Chiefs, but can you think of one really interesting interview moment he’s had? You probably can’t…..and that’s not a knock on Mahomes. He’s not supposed to be a comedian or philosopher. Mahomes is just a fantastic football player but, while it may not look like it on Sunday's, he’s actually just a regular guy.
In NHL terms, Connor McDavid has a Patrick-like personality.
McDavid should be a superstar for his generational talent alone, even if he has the off-the-ice aura of your average substitute teacher. Still, I don’t think it would be too difficult to get him in front of prospective fans and wow them with his talent. The most popular way to consume sports highlights these days is through social media platforms such as Instagram and Twitter that reach tens of millions of people. The next time number 97 goes coast-to-coast on one of his patented rushes…..make sure to get the video to the people. I guarantee non-hockey fans will be more receptive to that than a video of Phillip Danault eating pizza at a press conference.
Something the NHL has leaned into the past couple of years is their “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign; a movement that came into being after former NHLer Akim Aliu spoke out about the racism he'd experienced as a player.
This is obviously a very important cause.
The NHL has long been the least diverse of the “big four” North American sports and the lack of representation means hockey is missing out on a big slice of passionate fans. With that in mind, the NHL needs to continue to push hockey in diverse communities to produce a new group of hockey fans and players.
Finally, here are a couple of other quick ideas before I wrap things up.
Video games are an underappreciated way to get people invested in a sport. Many people, including yours truly, began following a particular sport just because they enjoyed the video game. EA Sports NHL series is pretty good, but the league should consider opening up the license to produce NHL video games so that other companies can create some healthy competition.
On another front, it's been well-documented that hockey is an extremely expensive sport to play, especially at the competitive level. To help change that, the NHL needs to flex its muscles with the equipment companies and do whatever it can to help lower prices. Also, a big thumbs up to the NHL Player's Association for their fantastic "Goals and Dreams" campaign, which does a great job providing equipment for disadvantaged young people who want to give hockey a try. This is exactly the kind of program that will ensure that future generations are exposed to the game
Everyone connected to it knows that hockey is such an exciting sport.
As we mentioned off the top, ESPN and TNT will definitely help to spread the message.
But as we've talked about in this blog, the NHL also needs to continue to help itself by giving all things puck a bigger promotional push.