Entertainment Marketers 2008

Entertainment Marketers 2008: John Collins

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When the National Hockey League hired former Cleveland Browns President John Collins from the National Football League in 2006, hockey's most pressing marketing task was evident: Still recovering from a disastrous canceled season, the NHL needed to combat a perception that it was no longer a major sport.
Selected for:
NHL Winter Classic
Photo: Dave Sandford
  • Takes big-event mentality of NFL and scores with casual fans
  • Overflow crowd and big-time ratings
  • Sponsors and media buy in to game

"This is a $2.5 billion league, but because of broadcast ratings, it's not perceived to be as big and powerful as it really is," says Mr. Collins, senior exec VP-business and media at the NHL. "They think of it in terms of much smaller leagues" such as arena football and Major League Soccer.

Coming from the NFL, a league that's successfully built massive spectacles out of its Super Bowl, opening weekend and, more recently, international games, Mr. Collins concluded that the NHL's brand needed similarly large-scale events.

The first of those, the league's 2008 Winter Classic -- an outdoor hockey game played on New Year's Day in Buffalo, N.Y. -- certainly fit the scale requirements.

The game's combination of the NHL's brightest young star, Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby, and an unusual, tundra-like setting was irresistible to fans. The Winter Classic drew 72,000 people to watch an indoor sport in frigid outdoor temperatures, and another 15,000 piled into a nearby arena to watch a telecast of the game.

Big draw
The league scored its highest single-game TV rating since Wayne Gretzky's 1999 farewell.

Media interest was enormous: The Winter Classic was featured on the front page of The New York Times, on the BBC and even in People. Sponsors included Pepsi-Cola Co.'s Amp and Anheuser-Busch's Bud Light, and Cisco Systems, Chrysler's Dodge and Reebok International enlisted as well.

The NHL is all but certain to host a second Winter Classic next season. Sites rumored to be in consideration include Chicago's Wrigley Field and New York's Yankee Stadium.

Despite the enormous response, Mr. Collins says the league isn't considering putting more than one game a year outdoors. He says the "unexpected" nature of the setting was part of the game's appeal.

Regardless, no one who saw it will be confusing the NHL with arena football anytime soon. "This was the first big step for us in terms of building scale."
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