NHL's Panthers Take the Hockey Out of Advertising

Teams Ignore Game, Emphasize Experience to Lure Casual Fans

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CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- The National Hockey League's Florida Panthers need to sell hockey tickets, but they have a problem: They're not that good at hockey. So the team's new campaign attempts to appeal to would-be ticket buyers by ignoring the sport altogether. Its new tagline -- "We came to play" -- emphasizes the social aspect of going to games as opposed to, you know, watching the game.

"We haven't made the playoffs in nine seasons, so we have to create a unique experience ... to get them to consider coming to a game," said team President Michael Yormark. "We need more than just the game on the ice."

So the team has set about selling its games as a party experience, an idea rooted in Party City's decision to sign on as a presenting sponsor.

The team has revamped the music, the graphics and even the outfits staffers wear at the games to create a more festive feel. It's even removed about 1,250 seats to make the games feel more intimate and less empty.

"If you go to a party and the place is packed, you feel like you're one of the lucky few who got in," notes Mr. Yormark. "If it's half full, it doesn't have the same energy."

Team officials say they're far from alone among teams emphasizing the experience over the action these days. They point to recent campaigns from the Chicago Cubs, Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Orioles and Florida Marlins that all do that to some extent.

For instance, the Cubs' campaign, from the Chicago office of DraftFCB, focuses more on fans than players, with vignettes about the traditions and rituals of attending games at Wrigley Field. (Its tagline is "A Way of Life.") The Cubs, like the Panthers, have struggled on the field of late, but there's good reason to sell the experience over the action even when you've got a good team, says Pete Gary, president of the Panthers' creative agency, Boca Raton, Fla.-based Hi Voltage.

After all, die-hard fans are already aware of the team and the games. Team-marketing efforts ought to be aimed at casual fans who need off-ice reasons to attend.

"The hockey fans want to see hockey," said Mr. Gary. "They don't need an ad about hockey to tell them it's here."

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