Saturday, February 7, 2009

Marketing the Game: the MLS, Video Games, and NHL GameCenter

I've had a bunch of thoughts rolling around in my head for the past week or so regarding the marketing of the game we all love. As we have seen the past two to three years, the NHL has been growing in terms of dollars, attendance, fan base, and TV ratings (since the lockout, at least). I was going to make this into some kind of series, but like I said, all I have thus far is just a bunch of random thoughts on what markets are out there that the NHL could possibly reach out to in order to extend its growth.

All of this thought began when I ran back into a report published back in October by Experian Customer research (via Yahoo), which showed that NHL fans, in general, have a higher mean household income than any of the "big five" sports leagues in North America (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS).

The average between the NHL (around $88,500 a year) and the NFL (just under $82,000) isn't shocking big; but it is a difference. But what really got me thinking wasn't this, it was the further research done by the report.

Average NHL fans, according to Experian, are 27% more likely to own/play video games in their spare time. Furthermore, with exception to the MLS, NHL fans are in general of a younger age than NBA, NFL, and MLB fans; respectively. The report goes on to also state that NHL fans are doing more shopping online and are more tech-savvy than any other league in North America.

Most of you might have already heard this spiel, for which I am sorry. But, as I sit here enjoying one of Canada's finest beverages (Labatt Blue, of course), I wonder if the NHL will take this information seriously enough to actually think about the possibilities. Now I don't have many suggestions, but I have thought of some. Here are three "common" "assumptions" about the NHL and their fans concerning marketing:
  1. Hockey does not fare well on TV, and is much better in person.
  2. Hockey is a niche sport, therefore only having die-hard regional fans that really only pay attention to their respective team.
  3. With Hockey fans being so tech-savvy, many avoid paying the $169 a season for the newly launched NHL GameCenter by the NHL.
I do not disagree with any of these assumptions. Number one is somewhat true, as a game in person is 100x better than a game on TV, no argument. I would say number two has some truth to it as well, because I would say that hockey has more die-hard fans than most sport. And finally, with number three, lets just say I have my sites for when the Rangers are blacked out the nine times a season so I can continue my horrible habit of watching an offensively capable team struggle in a defensive system with an all-star goalie (sorry for the rant).

Now, with all this said, I don't think the NHL can go anywhere near mainstream like some think it can within the next 5 to 10 years (I will leave the ESPN issue to another day). I love to see the NHL growing in dollar figures and in fan bases, it only means (for now) better things for a game that I think has some of the highest levels of honesty (sans betting schemes), integrity, and culture within North America. Some around the hockey world would like to see the NHL get right back on ESPN and grow grow grow as fast as possible, but I refrain from that, as I am more of the slow and steady type. I think the game right now is fine where it is, and if it continues on the current path, I think it could be a very viable product for many for years to come. I think some NHL fans have to come to accept this and realize that we will never reach the heights of the NFL and MLB because to put it perfectly honest, Ice Hockey is not America's pastime.

So here are three areas/ideas/situations that I think the NHL could look into in order to continue growing its product off the ice.

1. Major League Soccer

The MLS, whether you believe me or not, is actually growing. Now many point to this in large part due to the rapidly growing Hispanic community all across the US, and I wouldn't disagree. But, at the same time, Soccer is the biggest sport in the world and is another niche sport in the U. S.A. that attracts families of children and much of the same demographic as NHL fans. 11 out of its current 15 franchises are located in or around the same area as NHL franchises. As of next summer, that number will jump to 12 out of 16 with the arrival of a Philadelphia team.

In that same Experian report, the MLS is right behind the NHL in the Household Income, video games, and average age statistics. The MLS and NHL seemed to be poised for the future, and together I think they could really help each other out.

Now I am in no way a Marketing wiz (Hell, I'm taking my first marketing class as I type), but I like to think I know a good ploy from a bad. I don't have many suggestions for the NHL here, but one that stuck in my mind the past few days would be a year round plan. The MLS, unlike most soccer leagues around the globe, starts in the spring and plays through the summer and ends in the early days of autumn. The NHL, as you know, is on the opposite schedule. Could the two link up and offer a year-round season ticket plan? As Mythbusters would put it:

- Video Games

More specifically, NHL 09. The game won 4 best game of the year titles in 2008, and is very addictive (trust me). Many puckheads are always upset with the game not being on the same level in terms of game mode compared to EA Sports Madden NFL series, but what makes NHL so good is the game play. I enjoy nothing more than playing my football and basketball obsessed friends in NHL, and beating them on a consistent basis.

The NHL must explore this market, as there has to be something to the mass appeal to the game. The Video Game guys around the net could easily pick Madden every year, but NHL has been a hot topic the past few seasons, and NHL 2010 is already greatly anticipated.

Ideas? I don't know, do an online tournament through where 16 randomly chosen gamers get to re-create the NHL playoffs over the summer to keep interest up. I'm not big on ideas for this section, but there has to be something.

I say this because people like playing the game of hockey via NHL 09. They realize how intense and fast the game is through their video-game console, which keeps them coming back for more. If the NHL can figure out a way to parlay that into keeping them coming back to Versus to watch a live game, they will have done their job.

- NHL GameCenter

The NHL GameCenter was launched fresh this 2008-2009 season. The idea and platform was loved and prasied by some, but also labeled as a rip-off by others. Let's debate both sides of the issue:

Pro's: The GameCenter lets you have everything at your fingertips. Since us NHL fans are so tech-savvy, this makes us giddy as information is everywhere and we can watch any game at any time. Also, a key for die-hards, it allows the die-hard fan to catch every game all year, which to some who live in markets where hockey is an afterthought in the media, this is awesome.

Con's: Being a hockey-traditionalist myself, I love the idea of sitting down at 6:30 on a Rangers game-night or a Saturday night before Hockey Night in Canada; and finishing up the program when the game(s) are over. When this idea gets accomplished, I feel complete and refreshed. I am on my computer enough as it is, I don't really want to sit and watch a game on it some times. The lazy boy calls me often.

The GameCenter is a great idea by the NHL and in no way should they abandon it. I'm sure they did well in its first season and I'm sure it will continue to grow. One thing I think they should due in light of the economy is cut the price. It should be in no way above a $100, to me, and they should offer some really flexible offers at the beginning of the season.

So that's it; all my random thoughts written down in a somewhat coherent way. If I come up with anything else or remember something, I'll either add it or save it for another post. Please let me know what you think, as this stuff really does interest me.

I have a busy Sunday planned so I'm not sure how much I will be around. If not I will be back Monday.

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