According to Mike Shields, NHL fans are an under-served market, starved for hockey. He points to NHL sales and marketing executive Keith Wachtel who said, “If you ask the average fan where they get their NFL information, they’ll say ESPN.com or the local paper… For our fans, they start on NHL.com.”1
The implications from this are twofold. First, other sports fans find more of the details they need through major media outlets, whereas hockey fans are not as fulfilled in this way. Second, the NHL has found a way to address this shortcoming through its digital offerings.
In 2006, the league determined to improve its digital services. It hired a former NFL executive, whose research revealed that hockey fans were “younger, more affluent and tech-savvy than fans of other major sports.”
The figures were telling. Ninety-two percent owned computers, and thirty six percent had digital cable. The NHL introduced innovations online, redesigning its website to deliver more content—and in particular, more video.
The success of the site has been evident in its traffic analytics, with thirteen million unique users for the season. Nearly half of those are from the US.
High-Tech, Media-Rich Approach
Beyond serving the needs of fans better, new partnership opportunities arose with companies such as Electronic Arts and Timberland. Both featured custom video series to showcase NHL athletes, and linked the sport with the respective brands. The league expects to do four or more such deals with partner brands annually.
The NHL receives far less attention via US media than here in Canada. What that means in terms of brand reach outside of our Northern hockey paradise is important. With so many teams in the US it’s easy to see how many fans could be frustrated in this day of free-flowing information, not having easily accessible hockey news and statistics.
Hockey fans can go to ESPN.com and elsewhere to find some of the NHL experience. But the league has determined that its fans are not as well served as other sports through the usual outlets. By offering a richer hockey experience, NHL.com has reaped rewards, primarily through sponsorships and happier fans.
Early Results, Further Developments Needed
The site has generated distribution contracts with iTunes, YouTube and Yahoo! Sports, among others. The NHL identifies hockey fans as young and affluent. That’s a fact that raises more questions that will be important to answer in the coming years. It also demonstrates that one sport may be very different from another in terms of demographic features.
It’s no secret that to play hockey requires significantly more capital than say, soccer. Is there a strong link in hockey between those who grow up playing the sport and those who watch it as adults? Another question that arises is whether the NHL can reach less affluent fans and increase its market share, or if media limitations might hinder such an effort. The league may not want to do so, which is a different matter altogether.
Turning Weaknesses into Strengths
What the NHL appears to have done with its flagship website is turn a serious service deficiency for its fans into an opportunity to increase market reach and attract special deals with major global brands. Shields’ article speaks more generally to the notion that as as marketers we must always seek to uncover weaknesses in our strategy.
As the case has been for the NHL, challenges in systems in which we may have little control can be overcome by turning a weakness for other industries into a strength with great dividends.
With discovery of weaknesses come potential areas of improvement and opportunities for growth.
 Shields, M. (2009). On Thick Ice. MediaWeek, 19(36), 6.