EVENTS & PROMOTIONS: NHL, OLYMPICS LINK: PRO LEAGUE JOINS WITH USOC FOR EFFORT TIED TO '98 WINTER GAMES

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Slow, gradual growth has been a mantra at the National Hockey League, but a new marketing program tied to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Na-gano, Japan, aims to accelerate that process.

The NHL is partnering with the U.S. Olympic Committee; USA Hockey, the governing body for Team USA; and the NHL Players Association in licensing, marketing and sponsorship programs that use the slogan "The coolest game in Nagano," an extension of the NHL's own "The coolest game on Earth."

PROGRAM STARTS THIS FALL

The NHL will begin its efforts this fall. "The coolest game in Nagano" line will be communicated in all NHL marketing missives, from arena signage to an ad campaign from an as-yet unassigned agency. (Tool of North America, Los Angeles, handles the NHL account.)

Ads will also brief consumers on the NHL's decision to, for the time, suspend league play for about three weeks to allow its players to compete for their respective countries during the Games.

"We want to make a hard link between our brand and the Olympics, build a lot of noise for the league and for our players, and then propel out of the Games and into the second half of our season," said Rick Dudley, president of NHL Enterprises.

The NHL gets use of the U.S. team's Olympic logo in marketing and licensing programs, and will license products that combine the U.S. team, Olympic, NHL and NHL team logos.

Nike, an NHL and USA Hockey licensee, would seem to have an edge for a master apparel license.

The NHL will handle marketing for the U.S. hockey team, not unlike how the National Basketball Association has became the marketing agent for USA Basketball in creating the "Dream Team" program.

NBA, NHL SIMILARITIES

The NBA and NHL marketing initiatives are similar in that they seek to use the power and platform of the Games to promote their brands in undeveloped markets. But while the NBA's focus was abroad, the NHL is concentrating on the U.S.

By allowing its hockey players to compete for their home countries, the NHL will underscore the point that its sport is truly global and more developed than basketball.

Marketers that are both NHL and Olympic sponsors-Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola Co. and IBM Corp.-will be first to hear the NHL's sponsorship pitch for USA Hockey. Non-NHL sponsors are also interested: McDonald's Corp. is said to be very keen on the program. Mr. Dudley wouldn't comment on potential deals.

Sponsorship packages include ad time in a series of 30-minute and 1-hour TV specials about the sport of hockey and its personalities that will most likely air on CBS, which holds the TV rights to the Games.

NHL marketing executives are also crafting a concept for a large integrated consumer promotion for all sponsors and licensees to tie into.

While league executives wouldn't frown on sponsors executing their own promotions independent of what the NHL is creating, they don't want a plethora of promotions to undermine the NHL's ultimate objective of marketing its brand.

'REINFORCING POSITIONING'

"We have to create a program that's going to sell more soft drinks and hamburgers, but we also have to create one that reinforces our positioning," Mr. Dudley said. "The thing we're concerned about is consistency. We want the focus to be on 'The coolest game in Nagano.' We want everything to relate to

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