NHL Reconnects With Tech-Savvy Fans

Web Traffic Up 100% as League Rebounds From Canceled Season -- Without Losing a Sponsor

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- After a lockout canceled its entire 2004-2005 season, Gary Bettman's NHL returned last year to record attendance and record revenue. The commissioner credits the strength of the brand, and cites efforts to reconnect with the league's tech-savvy fans via new media such as NHL.com, where traffic is up 100% over last year.
Gary Bettman
Gary Bettman Credit: Darryl Estrine

Ad Age: Now that we're a year removed from the canceled season, can you talk about how you kept everybody onboard? You didn't lose a single sponsor.

Mr. Bettman: Last season was about relaunching our game under extraordinary circumstances. There are few, if any, businesses -- not just professional sports -- that could endure not operating for a year and then come back to record attendance and record revenue. It's testament to our great fans and the strength of the brand. We had to use all of our assets to re-engage our fans.

Ad Age: Did you feel like you had to reintroduce the brand?

Mr. Bettman: No, it was really to reconnect. When you look at the makeup of NHL fans -- putting aside that they tend to be the most affluent, best-educated and most tech-savvy of all the sports -- they're also the most connected. Our fans understood what we were doing during the work stoppage, and they were supportive. The place where we could have gotten into trouble was if we didn't openly fix our problems.

Ad Age: Yet nobody jumped off the bandwagon.

Mr. Bettman: Unfortunately, there was a ramp-up to the work stoppage. We took great pains to communicate with all of our partners, all our business partners, to let them know what was happening and why. It wasn't a situation where we let them invest in a season that wasn't going to occur. We gave them ample warning. It didn't come as a surprise to anybody. Had our partners moved forward with plans and invested time and money in a season that didn't occur, it might have been different.

Ad Age: What will be the next phase of your marketing push?

Mr. Bettman: One of the best results of what was accomplished was the partnership with the players, particularly as it relates to their accessibility to our business partners and the media. As a result, we're now able to promote our players better than we have before. We have an unprecedented level of cooperation, and we're using that to tell stories about our game and about our players in ways we haven't before.

Ad Age: As a former sportswriter, I always felt -- and I think a lot of my sportswriting colleagues would agree -- if you compare sport to sport, hockey players are the best to deal with.

Mr. Bettman: That was true in terms of providing postgame interviews and the daily routine that players in all sports go through. When it came to marketing and promoting the game, when it came to access for TV and our marketing partners, we didn't have the level of cooperation that other sports leagues had.

Ad Age: Tell us about TV ratings and your relationship with your main cable network, Versus.

Mr. Bettman: They have done remarkably well under difficult circumstances. We are their most important property, we are their priority, and we love the attention they're giving to us. What we did to get that special treatment, we give up some short-term distribution that we believe will grow over time. Would we like our ratings to be higher? Yes, but that's something we'll work on in a marketplace where everybody's ratings have gone down.

Ad Age: But there are other outlets. You've done a great job with NHL.com, with traffic up 100% percent over last year.

Mr. Bettman: We believe that with our tech-savvy fan base, while television will be important, sports leagues will need to connect with their fans through new media. This is something that is getting priority attention from our organization.

Ad Age: Your buddy David Stern is quite involved in the marketing end of the NBA. How involved are you in reaching out to your sponsors, to TV?

Mr. Bettman: I am involved and accessible. I wouldn't compare myself to anybody else. While I don't believe in micromanaging, I believe a sports commissioner needs to be involved; needs to be a cheerleader; and, in our case over the last couple of years, needed to be accessible to explain what was going on because we were in rather unique circumstances.

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