Another One? Enough is Enough

Is it possible for a clever marketing strategy to over used?

I remember when the NHL first announced that a regular season hockey game was going to be played outdoors. I was ecstatic. Partially due to the fact playing hockey on outdoor rinks and ponds is how I learned to play the game, but also because the game was going to be played in my hometown of Edmonton, AB. Oh ya, I almost forgot, my beloved Montreal Canadiens were going to be the opponents. I wanted to go so badly, and almost did, but that’s a story for another day.

That game was held on November 22, 2003, and the NHL went more than 4 years before hosting its next regular season contest outdoors on Jan 1, 2008 when the Pittsburgh Penguins took on the Buffalo Sabres in the first installment of the Winter Classic. Yes, that’s right, I said the first installment, because since then, there have been 19 NHL games played outside.

Cool, right? Not so much.

We will get to that, but first, what were the reasons for having NHL games outside?

The outdoor game was an attempt to re-excite hockey fans in Canada by playing the game in similar fashion to how most Canadians grew up playing. Outdoors on rinks and ponds is how the game started and is often still played in rural parts of the world. Sponsors could leverage the history of the sport to entice fans. Nothing like seeing commercials advertising the game with old videos of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and Mark Messier. From a fans standpoint, the idea of freezing your butt off outside for 3 hours, cheering for your favourite team, and drinking beer to help ease the cold, sounded amazing.

While NHL support has never been in question north of the border, or even in some select northern cities of the United States, teams in “non-hockey markets” struggle to generate support and committed fans. This was an interesting way for the NHL to create excitement for the game in non-traditional markets. Look what Wayne Gretzky did for hockey in LA in the 90’s.

The game presented opportunities for sponsors to get involved with a large scale hockey event without waiting for the playoffs or sponsoring the hit or miss success of the NHL All-Star game. The marketing potential for the league and businesses was plentiful. Sponsors loved the idea, fans loved the idea, and the NHL loved the idea. It was a marketer’s dream.

The first few games were a huge success, and the NHL increased the frequency of outdoor games to continue to grow the game and gain reap the financial benefits. In 2014, the NHL held 6 outdoor games. However, they attempted non-hockey markets, further south where the warm weather had negative effects on the condition of the ice. The buzz and quality was poor, and the game was a bad representation of the NHL.

Colleges and other leagues have joined the outdoor game trend. This has contributed over production of outdoor games. In addition, the playing quality continues to be an issue as this year there were a college games cancelled and even played on an ice surfaced drenched in a layer of rain water. These negative effects are having the opposite effect of what was intended: to provide a vehicle to market the game of hockey and generate profit from sponsors who want to be involved in an exciting, rare staging of the game.

I think this is a prime example of over using a marketing strategy. What one was an exciting rare event has become boring and common. I can imagine it’s only a matter of time before the value of sponsoring an outdoor game doesn’t benefit sponsors. In addition, what was once an opportunity to create excitement and market the game of hockey is already having adverse effect because the quality of the play is subpar and the rare commodity of an outdoor NHL game no longer exists. The NHL will be forced to come up with new ways to market the game to the southern areas of the United States, where fan support is often short, loose, and contingent upon the success of the team. Who knows, maybe they’ll try and play hockey in Hawaii next, or maybe they’ll just shoot for the moon, literally. Space Hockey… I said it first.

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