Campaign Centered on Stanley Cup Lures Casual Fans, Lifts NHL Ratings

Potential Finals Showdown Between Teams in Largest Media Markets Gives League Momentum

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A sustained social-media push and a comprehensive ad campaign around the iconic Stanley Cup -- all geared to help lure the casual fan -- has helped the National Hockey League forge record TV ratings through the first two rounds of the playoffs. Now, despite a drop in ratings in the conference finals, the league is hoping the potential matchup of teams from the two biggest media markets in the country will cap the most-successful season in NHL history.

Credit: AP
"There's a unique opportunity there. That could be unbelievable," NHL chief marketing officer Brian Jennings told Ad Age of a possible matchup between the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings. "But we're very realistic. We just want to be opportunistic in what that represents."

At press time, the Rangers were tied with the New Jersey Devils, 2-2, in a best-of -seven Eastern Conference Final while the Kings have already advanced out of the Western Conference. The Rangers have won the Stanley Cup just once in the last 72 years -- that happened in 1994 -- and the Kings have never won it.

Although the conference finals ratings have fallen – Saturday 's Game 3 Rangers-Devils was off 13% compared to last year and Sunday's Game 4 Kings-Coyotes was down 15%, according to Nielsen – the first two rounds of the NHL playoffs were the most-watched first two rounds since 1994, when cable programming data began. Overall, playoff ratings are up 14% year-over-year, Nielsen said, adding that ratings for the conference semifinals (the second round of the playoffs) were up 28% year-over-year.

Mr. Jennings said he was pleased, given that this is the first year for the fledgling NBC Sports Network and it was a challenge for viewers to find games on cable channels such as CNBC, not to mention another name change for the main cable station (from Outdoor Life Network to Versus to NBC Sports Network).

"When you think about what they had to do -- with Comcast purchasing NBC and two cultures coming together; they had the Super Bowl this year; they rebranded a network with Versus; and with the commitment to us with the 'every game, every night' pledge to televise games -- I think for the first year it was an amazing job," he said.

In many ways, that improvement was helped by a social-media blitz and a postseason marketing campaign titled "Because It's the Cup" that focused on casual hockey fans, hoping the lure of what is arguably the greatest trophy in sports would reel in less-avid viewers.

The league created a Facebook page for the Stanley Cup, as well as a Facebook app that allowed fans to grow a virtual playoff beard for the postseason (it has become tradition for NHL players to grow a beard and not shave until their team is eliminated or wins the Stanley Cup). In addition, fans can tweet photos with the hashtag #becauseitsthecup to the @NHL Twitter account, and they can earn FourSquare badges by checking in at playoff games.

Traditionally, five TV spots have aired so far and a sixth is scheduled to debut during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals May 30. The "Because It's the Cup" campaign from DraftFCB, Chicago, was based on heavy research.

"The focus groups, it was amazing," Mr. Jennings said. "Some of these people couldn't name even a player or two on the Kings, on the Rangers, or even Toronto (the ancestral home of the NHL). But at the end of the session, the facilitator would ask the same question: 'What is the trophy that they give out at the end of the championship?' Every hand went up and knew it was the Stanley Cup. The equity that the cup has, it's one of our greatest ambassadors."

Mr. Jennings and his team then spent three weeks on the road talking with almost every marketing partner on how sponsors could activate around "Because It's the Cup." MillerCoors, for instance, at point-of -sale for its official NHL beers Coors Light and Molson Canadian included "Because It's the Cup" messaging, and put a mini-Stanley Cup on tap handles in more than 6,500 bars across the U.S. and Canada.

"Beer is a fun, social beverage and watching hockey, especially the Stanley Cup playoffs, is a fun, social event," Adam Dettman, MillerCoors director-sports and entertainment marketing, said. "Consumers connecting around shared experiences is what beer is all about for us. Partnering with the NHL was a no-brainer. Having the Stanley Cup, the most famous and revered trophy in all of sports, on our packaging, POS and our tap handles, really takes this partnership to a much deeper level both for us and for the consumer."

According to the NHL, the league will bring in more than $3.2 billion in total revenue for the 2011-12 season when the Stanley Cup playoffs end, an 18% increase over last year and its seventh consecutive year of record-setting revenue. Average daily unique visitors to NHL.com increased for the sixth consecutive season and is up 12% over last season; downloads of the NHL GameCenter app on mobile phones and tablets have increased 68% year-over-year; the NHL Facebook page has 2.24 million fans, a 72% increase over last season; and NHL followers on Twitter have jumped 96% since last year to more than 1 million followers.

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