Canucks and Beyond

NHL Blimps and Other Advertising Adventures

06/28/2011 at 5:16pm EDT

I’ve been thinking a lot about the NHL’s advertising power since the playoffs, having experienced first-hand the domino effect of Vancouver’s massive marketing machine. And not even just their marketing, but the trickle-down effect of having so many people willing to market your brand for you. Aside from the thousands of jerseys everywhere, there’s also everything from the Canucks Drink Special of the Day at every yuppie bar, to the street musicians doing their own turn at Canucks anthems. And a thousand things in between. So many people taking their little—or massive—cut of the action.

imageAs someone who doesn’t get to attend games very often, I remember the first time I saw an arena blimp advertisement: that giant aluminum-wrapped phallus that is the Chipotle Blimp. At the time I’ll confess to having no idea what the hell a “chipotle” even was, and my imagination ran amok with the idea that someone had decided that floating this giant, hot-air-filled, mid-life crisis was a good idea inside a hockey arena. (Although it is kind of awesome.)

It was also the first time I’d seriously considered the extents to which marketing in sports arenas could go to. A blimp is pretty conventional, but the landscape of other revenue-generating surfaces seems virtually endless.

In the arena landscape itself, there are dasherboards, murals, jumbotrons, arena naming rights, giant floating airship/blimps, and even the images and text they lay down on the arena staircases.

What else might be left to advertise on? Well, there’s always the team jerseys, hockey nets, player equipment, water bottles… (though that looks to be covered):

And more advertising platforms: How about the mascots (put any of these guys in a diaper and you’ve got the Pampers contract locked up for a decade); or the seats of the arena? To be honest, I’m surprised every seat in a NHL arena doesn’t come with a pre-printed slip cover of a Pizza Hut or McDonald’s menu.

And then there’s the ‘hockey-related’ ad business, like you’ll see on this website and others, much of which features products that sponsors and the NHL itself promotes as part of one of their ‘target demographics.’ Hockey fans have proven to be the most tech-savvy and online-comfortable sports fans in the market, and online advertising targeted to their interests—when done right—is a lucrative business for some.

Every NHL team works tirelessly to build their stable of marketing partners and personal brands. Not all have huge success, but they take that growth very seriously. In the case of the Penguins, for example, they note the following demographics for their market:

“The 25-34 year-old age range is 57% more likely than the market average to have attended a game in the past year. When assessing disposable income, 1 in 4 attendees have a household income of at least $100,000. Similarly, avid fans who watch Penguins games on television or listen on the radio are 65% more likely to have a household income of $150,000 or more. Eighty-six percent of Penguins game attendees own a home computer. Likewise, an impressive 62% own either a DVR, HDTV, MP3 player, or subscribe to satellite radio. Seventy-two percent of game attendees have made online purchases in the past year. Over 40% of game attendees spent at least $500 online in the past 12 months.” (“Who are our,” ) This data shows that hockey fans are middle to upper class and also tech-savvy making them an ideal market to target for more expensive things such as electronics.

Market research like that explains a lot of the specific ads targeted to us on television and in online hockey media in general. But when it comes to the specific profits of the teams, there are even bigger things at stake: sponsored merchandise.

The NHL’s copyright department is as serious as a heart attack when it comes to protecting its brand (as a couple of recent events demonstrated, with regards to the Canucks’ and Habs’ logos). And while their logic seems a bit heavy-handed at times, their results can’t be argued with, as was detailed in this press release last Christmas:

The League saw strong sales growth of its licensed product over the holiday shopping weekend (Nov. 26 -29), illustrating an increased fan demand.

North American retail sales are up 11 percent post Black Friday, while NHL team store and concessionaires are up 15 percent in per cap sales year-to-date. Products driving sales growth include NHL Video Games, specifically EA Sports NHL 11 (up 20 percent), 2011 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic apparel (up 41 percent), women’s apparel (up 52 percent), men’s apparel (up 22 percent), and Franklin NHL street hockey equipment (up 32 percent).

The NHL has also once again registered record-setting merchandise sales at both the NHL Powered by Reebok Store and at Shop.NHL.com over the Thanksgiving weekend. NHL Powered by Reebok recorded its largest Black Friday sales figures in the four year history of the New York City store with a 7 percent increase over last year’s record-breaking sales. The record-setting Thanksgiving weekend generated additional momentum in sales figures for the store. For the full month of November, sales were up 16 percent this year compared to last, and overall store sales this year (Jan.-Nov. 2010) have increased 9 percent from 2009.

I don’t have the absolute numbers in terms of gross sales, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to assume that no one who goes to work wearing a suit in the NHL, is going hungry any time soon.

Gary’s NHL—much maligned as he is by so many hockey fans—is making them all a boatload of money.

The NHL used to be (and perhaps still is) pegged as the league that relied most heavily on the gate receipts to profit from their product. But merchandising initiatives are certainly balancing that out more than ever before.

Still, when I got back to my earlier question about what other advertising platforms are liable to have a Nike swish or a McDonald’s M on them in the future, it starts to get a little worrisome. Are there any limits to how far they intend to push it? And how far can they go before fans won’t tolerate it?

Or maybe, in this era after the launch of the glowing hockey puck, that ship has already sailed.

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