NHL EYES STATURE OF FELLOW LEAGUES

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The National Hockey League is starting over. Again.

The NHL season that began last weekend marks the beginning of an effort to relaunch the league. A similar plan last year was undermined by labor conflicts that cut the season in half.

"We're eyeing this season as a veritable relaunch," said Rick Dudley, senior VP-chief operating officer at NHL Enterprises. "We still have a long way to go. But with the programs we have in place and the support we're getting from sponsors, we're confident we can take a major step forward this year."

But that sponsor support-from the likes of ESPN, Fox, Anheuser-Busch's Bud Ice and Nike-isn't altruistic marketing help. Each of these key marketing partners is dialing up its involvement because the sponsor is counting on hockey to build brands and grow business.

Still, the NHL has miles to go before it has the kind of equity to snare the $75 million a year in rights fees the National Football League gets from all its sponsors, or the $10 million in rights and media time the National Basketball Association can get each year from its biggest sponsors.

The NHL's game plan consists of ideas and strategies taken from the marketing textbooks of its big brothers and sponsors. The NHL is borrowing a tagline from Bud Ice's hockey-theme ads, "The coolest game on Earth," and is making it the league's marketing monicker-akin to "I love this game" at the NBA.

NHL Enterprises has created "Coolest game" spots that will air all season in NHL arenas and on local and national broadcasts. Each arena will also have "Coolest game" signage. On Oct. 20, the NHL will distribute 2.5 million league schedules, sponsored by The Hockey News and Bud Ice, that also will tout the tag.

The league also will continue to cultivate a fan base through vigorous grass-roots marketing.

The NHL's primary strategy has been to develop and exploit the emerging sport of street hockey. That was the goal behind BreakOut '95, a street hockey carnival that visited eight NHL markets this summer, with total attendance exceeding 110,000. Coca-Cola Co., Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade and Nike were the chief sponsors.

Next summer, the league will take BreakOut '96 to 16 NHL markets. The NHL plans to put together a professional street hockey league that will begin competition next summer. The league has reached a tentative agreement with a sponsor, but Mr. Dudley wouldn't say who.

Fox, Nike and Bud Ice are counting on the NHL to turn substantial numbers of those street hockey fans into ice hockey fans. ESPN's NHL ratings jumped 29%-from an 0.7 average in '94 to 0.9 in '95. Fox's 2.0 rating was an 18% improvement over ABC's 1.7.

As for Nike, it now owns the world's biggest hockey equipment marketer, Canstar, and plans to reveal several major marketing and product initiatives in January.

But for Bud Ice, hockey is its primary marketing platform. Schupp Co., St. Louis, the Bud Ice agency, is creating NHL-theme ads, retail merchandise and consumer promos customized for each NHL market.

This month, Bud Ice, which also has similar relationships with the American Hockey League and the International Hockey League, is launching a marketing program that loosely ties together its hockey associations.

"There are three drivers behind our belief in hockey," said Mike LaBroad, senior brand manager for Bud Ice. "Geographically, our three sponsorships cover us nationally. Demographically, hockey plays best to the late-20s crowd, who are still forming their beer brand opinions. And psychographically, Bud Ice matches perfectly with a sport played on ice.'

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