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With its 1997-98 season launching this week, the National Hockey League is preparing an ad campaign that promotes its tie to the '98 Winter Olympics, while league sponsors gear up to spend $200 million in NHL-themed marketing and media programs.

The NHL's quest for growth could potentially take a large leap forward this season, if its strategy to build on next year's Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, succeeds. A measurable boost in popularity this season and next would undoubtedly bolster the NHL's hand as it looks to negotiate new TV contracts after the current deal with Fox expires after the 1998-99 season.


The NHL begins touting the new season, which begins Oct. 1, in a special section in the Oct. 3 edition of USA Today, supported by league sponsors including Anheuser-Busch, IBM Corp., Nike, Norelco, Quaker State Corp., Wendy's International, and Coca-Cola Co.'s Coke, PowerAde and Surge brands.

Those sponsors also will be shelling out $200 million in media and marketing around the NHL this season, 30% more than last season, said Ed Horne, group VP-corporate marketing at NHL Enterprises.

A TV campaign is also expected to air by mid-October and will run during national and local NHL telecasts.

The spots will break in two waves, said Rick Dudley, president-chief operating officer of NHL Enterprises, which created the campaign. The first half will use game footage to celebrate the speed, power and skill of the game.


A second wave of ads will break closer to the NHL's all-star game in January. The league has already signed Russell Athletic and Sears, Roebuck & Co. to distribute 18 million ballots for consumers to choose players making the teams for the all-star game, which will divide the league along geographic and national lines.

The TV commercials will also remind fans that the NHL will take a three-week break while its players go to the Olympics. Promoting the link, the league modified its tagline from "Coolest game on earth," to "Coolest game in Nagano."

To set the international tone for the events to come, the NHL this weekend also will play two regular season games in Japan. Dentsu, Tokyo, is handling the management and marketing of those events. Coca-Cola, IBM and Nike have signed as sponsors, and ESPN and ESPN2 will broadcast the games in the U.S.

To keep the Olympics momentum going, the NHL has secured marketing deals with the requisite Olympic organizations and the NHL Players Association to execute a promotional push involving licensees, retailers and sponsors. The NHL is developing two different promotional thematics for its marketing partners, one called "NHL Winter Break." The theme for the other couldn't be determined.


Once the NHL resumes play after the Olympics, Fox will blanket the country with six regionalized broadcasts every Sunday, up through the finals.

Additionally, the league this week launches "NHL Cool Shots," a weekly, half-hour sports lifestyle show, akin to NBC's "NBA Inside Stuff," aimed at the 12-to-24 demographic. The program will reach 55 million households via distribution

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