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The National Hockey League's marketing department is suiting up for the 1994-95 season. But will its players?

The NHL earlier this month announced a five-year, $155 million TV rights deal with Fox. For the first time, the league will include ad time as part of its sponsorship packages. Anheuser-Busch and Nike have already signed deals; Coca-Cola Co. and Quaker Oats Co.'s Gatorade Co. are expected to soon join them.

But while the NHL is in the midst of a marketing makeover that seeks to emulate the National Basketball Association, it is facing a Major League Baseball kind of problem: a prickly labor dispute. As in baseball, one of the main issues is a proposed salary cap. A lockout is being threatened if there's no agreement by Oct. 1.

"That would be too bad," said Rick Dudley, senior VP-chief operating officer of NHL Enterprises who has led the marketing charge. "Everything is clicking for us right now, and [a work stoppage] would be a big bump in the road."

NHL executives believe the dispute will be settled before Fox begins broadcasting in January.

It had better be. Fox outbid both ABC and CBS, and is expected to lose $60 million on the deal. But the NHL is crucial to building the Fox Sports division and luring more lucrative properties. Fox also has set its sights on Major League Baseball, the Olympics and Wimbledon.

Fox's NHL broadcasts begin with the all-star game on Jan. 21. It will air 12 regular season and playoff games on Sunday afternoons starting in late spring, including at least two Stanley Cup final games in prime time. Fox Sports President David Hill promises an aggressive promotional campaign. The first on-air promos broke Sept. 18.

Capital Cities/ABC unit ESPN has owned the exclusive rights to telecast all NHL games since 1993, presenting about 100 games a season, although it did allow ABC to show some contests during that time.

To get a full-time broadcast partner, the NHL re-negotiated ESPN's five-year, $80 million deal. The new package includes a two-year extension for cable rights priced at a mere $25.6 million.

"ESPN recognized our need and desire to increase the fan base and get the best possible distribution," said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. "This marks an opportunity to join a young, aggressive network that's marketing and promotion oriented."

That rationale is indicative of the NHL's new marketing strategy: to form partnerships with TV networks and major marketers that target the NHL demographic-adults 18 to 34-to help grow the league's national appeal.

"We're looking to pare down our sponsor roster from 25 companies that have not done much to eight to 12 major corporations that will make a significant marketing commitment to the NHL," Mr. Dudley said. He wouldn't disclose pricing, but all packages will include league marketing rights and commitments to buy time on ESPN and Fox.

A-B will use the NHL as the primary marketing vehicle for its Ice Draft and Ice Draft Light brands during the late fall and winter months. A-B's agency DDB Needham Worldwide, Chicago, is creating TV spots, a national sweepstakes and lavish in-store displays.

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