By all accounts, the National Hockey League is experiencing record growth.
Led by increases in sponsorship and merchandise sales, corporate investment in its big events and impressive digital growth, the NHL is on pace for its fifth consecutive year of record total revenue and is projected to bring in more than $2.9 billion by the end of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sponsorship sales set an all-time record with gross sales increasing by 33% over last year as the league added to its blue-chip roster of corporate partners, including a record seven-year partnership with Molson Coors in Canada and MillerCoors in the U.S. to begin in July -- at $400 million, the biggest sponsorship in the NHL's 93 years.
On the TV side, NBC Sports' Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic broadcast was the most-watched regular-season hockey game in the U.S. in 36 years. Regular-season viewership on cable's Versus was up 17% over last year. The league's digital business also continued to grow. Average monthly unique visitors to NHL.com are up 30% over last year, the NHL's Facebook page grew to 1.46 million fans, a 436% increase over last year, and NHL Twitter followers are up by 54%.
All this popularity led to the largest TV deal in the league's history last month when the NHL signed a 10-year, $2 billion rights agreement with NBC Sports Group.
Driving all this is John Collins. Formerly the CMO of the National Football League, he came to the NHL as its CMO in 2006 and has since been elevated to chief operating officer. The league's advertising and marketing decisions funnel through him, and he is credited with creating the Winter Classic, a yearly outdoor game played at iconic venues on New Year's Day.
Mr. Collins came to the NHL at a time when the league was just two years removed from a devastating lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. The core hockey fan was re-engaged when the league returned, he said, but his unenviable task was to take a professional sports league, long-considered "niche" when compared to football, baseball and basketball, and put it on a national platform.
"Deep down, I knew that if we used the marketing and advertising tools at our disposal, we could create something bigger," Mr. Collins said. And that 's where our conversation started.
Ad Age : When you arrived at the NHL, what did [Commissioner] Gary Bettman charge you with?
Mr. Collins: The first order of business was to understand the brand, the shield and how people were connected to that . How could we polish that shield? How could we create national hockey games? We saw that the opportunity was there, but we needed to do a betterjob of building the national platforms and weaving together the touch points of where the fans were experiencing the games -- at the arena, on regional sports networks -- but try to incorporate the best moments. That was a strategy we used at the NFL, to make existing events bigger. It's why we shut down Times Square for a concert for NFL Kickoff.
Ad Age : Obviously the Winter Classic has morphed into that . What's the backstory there?
Mr. Collins: The longer story rolls all the way back to sitting down with the commissioner and talking about what he saw as the next phase of the development for the NHL. What he wanted to do was focus on the league business and move the league as a whole. They had a great fan demo, really strong regional club businesses since fans were very tribal, but we thought there would be a big opportunity to build scale, national sale, a halo on top of these club businesses. And create a path for advertisers and corporate marketers to spend behind the NHL. The real turning point was NBC. They came to us and said, "We have a window we'd like to talk to you about. We're getting out of the Orange Bowl and we think doing a big event is something we'd get behind." NBC provided the platform.
Ad Age : But weren't you initially worried that an outdoor hockey game would be lost in New Year's Day college football games?
Mr. Collins: No. We paused a lot of times about logistics and operations, and clearly there wasn't a lot of institutional knowledge about how to do this thing. But, look, the hockey fan is as passionate about hockey as other fans are about their sports. We knew if we could give them something special they would respond.
Ad Age : How do you define your role?
Mr. Collins: Brian Jennings ran consumer products here prior to me coming on board and is now the lead on our integrated marketing group. What I try to bring is a perspective where the NHL just needs to think bigger, be more relevant, push envelopes. We think the brand should be bigger. We're not going to sit still until hockey reaches its rightful position in terms of relevance in sports and entertainment. As far as we've come, I still see unlimited opportunity. The Stanley Cup should be, and could be, as big as March Madness from a ratings standpoint and an advertising standpoint. We're never satisfied. And we're lucky we have partners who want to get in line with us.
Ad Age : Tell us about the monster deal with MillerCoors and Molson Coors as your beer sponsors.
Mr. Collins: Anheuser-Busch and Labatt have been good partners to the NHL for years, but frankly, I think Molson and Coors saw an opportunity to leverage the brand in a completely different way and how to activate against that brand. I was fortunate enough to have been at the NFL and worked with A-B, but I also saw how Coors Lite did some of the best activation around the NFL in years. And I think they're going to do that in the NHL.
Ad Age : How do you balance the media mix?
Mr. Collins: TV is still the lifeblood at the national and club level. What digital media allows us to do is reconnect with our fan base. For example, we've done deals in places like Finland, where they want to know highlights of the games, but they also want highlights of the top 20 Finnish players. Digital allows you to slice and dice and serve fans in the way that never existed. The ability to build community is unbelievable. At the World Congress, I was listening to Bea Perez of Coke and Mike Lynch of Visa talking about how they use social media to create dialogue around their brands. In the sports world, we're fortunate we already have that dialogue.
Ad Age : Do you look at the work of others and think, "Wow, that 's good marketing?"
Mr. Collins: Absolutely. You look at Nike and the way they built their brand and how they would do something new, and you would sit there and be in awe of the magic they create around their brand. Clearly Apple, now. Look at people in the media business who have built incredible brands and businesses in the last couple of years.
Ad Age : Is there anything that keeps you up at night?
Mr. Collins: Two things. One, you always look back and see how you could have done it better. Two, a sense of urgency. How fast are we going to be able to move to take advantage of these opportunities? It's a balance of resources vs. appetite. Do we have enough resources to get it done and how do you prioritize it?