Marketing Lessons From the NHL Lockout

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What to do when the business’s worldview clashes with your customers’

If “[y]our job as a marketer is to figure out what your prospect’s biases and worldview and fears and beliefs are, and as a salesperson, is to help them know what you know,” then your challenge as a marketer and salesperson is unique if you’re currently at the National Hockey League (NHL). That’s because the current lockout (the third in 18 years) is entirely about money and not the game. And the truth is, nobody cries for you when you’re worth billions.

On the ice, the league is doing great — in recent history a different team has won the Stanley Cup each year and 12 different teams have reached the finals in the past 7 years. Moreover, both big-market teams like the L.A. Kings and Chicago Blackhawks and small-market teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Carolina Hurricane have won the big prize. The fans get real, exciting competition and the NHL has never been more competitive (it is now worth $282 million — 18% more than a year ago, revenue is up 9% to $3.4 billion, ticket prices were up 5%, arenas were filled at 95.6% capacity and major sponsorships have been secured).

So why risk it all with another lockout? It boils down to dollars and cents. First, the spread between the rich teams and poorer teams is dramatic. The five most valuable teams — the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New York Rangers, the Montreal Canadiens, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins — are worth $605 million on average. Compare that to the poorest teams — the Carolina Hurricanes, the New York Islanders, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Phoenix Coyotes and the St. Louis Blues — are worth $145 million on average. Then there’s the situation with operating income. The three most profitable teams — the Maple Leafs, the Rangers and the Canadians — accounted for 85% of the league’s income, while 13 teams lost money. Even if the lockout evens the playing field, it appears as though, not matter what happens, the Hurricanes, the Coyotes, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Anaheim Ducks and the Blue Jackets would still struggle. In other words, not all franchises are created equal. It’s clear the « sun belt » teams aren’t working. In the meantime Portland (OR), Seattle (WS) and Quebec City (QC) are gearing up for their own teams. Why? Because the fans are there. And the new Winnipeg Jets (the defunct Atlanta Thrashers) are proving that in the right market, professional hockey makes sense.

Yet, in the midst of this uncertainty and conflict, close  to 100% of season-ticket holders are holding on to their possessions. Other than the occasional call to boycott an eventual home-openers, fans remain hopeful and faithful.

And that’s precisely where it gets interesting for you as a marketer. How can you keep your customers when your company shuts down?

Control the Distribution

That’s what the NHL did with hockey. If you want hockey, the league is the only true way to go. College hockey is nowhere near what it is in basketball or football so other than a few junior leagues in small markets Albany, Syracuse and Binghamton, there is not much else. So in the end, if you want grade-A hockey, you have to wait.

Controlling your product is a much more difficult task than it used to be, but if you succeed, then we won’t have a choice but wait. Mind you, that’s a double-edged sword.

Build an Army

When you build an army, they will stand by and fight for you. As a marketer, your role is to build an army of fans, your mission is to cater to the weird, your job is to relentlessly deliver something your core wants. For the NHL that’s the fans in Toronto, New York, Montreal, Chicago, Boston and a few smaller markets like Detroit, Vancouver, Minnesota, Edmonton and Buffalo. They’re the ones that wait decades for their teams to win the Stanley Cup, they’re the ones that buy the paraphernalia, stand in line for tickets, cheer when their team is down and are ecstatic when the team wins.

As a marketer, if you’ve fed your fans and built your army, you can weather a storm. Granted, you might not be marketing professional sports. You could be in cars, books, advertising or consumer electronics. Would Apple would have a hard time selling new products if they stopped shipping for a year? Would your people patiently wait for your company to start shipping again?

Know Who Your Clients Are

Clients are the ones who pay your bills. The truth is that while your army builds and carries you, more often than not, you need to cast a wider net. For the NHL, they are the corporate ticket holders, the sponsors, the advertisers and the TV networks. They’re the ones with the deep pockets. They not only make you survive, but thrive…financially that is. But they stay because your fans are there. They want to speak with your fans and those around your fans.

As a marketer, you need to relentlessly build your army by catering to the weird but balance that with the beliefs, worldviews, fears and biases of the clients with the deep pockets. Because more often than not, they both want different things. Like Tony D’Amato said in Any Given Sunday “[i]t’s TV, it changed everything, changed the way we think forever. I mean the first time they stopped the game to cut away to some fucking commercial that was the end of it. »

Different views, but one relies on the other.

Don’t Tip the Scale

Of course balancing between your clients and your fans can be delicate. And that’s where it gets tricky for you as a marketer. While your fans will stick with you, at some point the straw that will break the camel’s back. At some point the fans will leave and when they do, so will the clients. If you agree that “[y]our job as a marketer is to figure out what your prospect’s biases and worldview and fears and beliefs are, and as a salesperson, is to help them know what you know,” you need to know when your prospect’s worldview is becomes « enough is enough » before they reach that point. That’s the truly difficult task.

Marketing is the process of communicating the value of your product to customers. Whether it’s a lockout, a strike, a government restriction or any hurdle, your first job as a marketer is continue catering to your fans because they are the ones that will stick with you the longest and help you weather the storm.

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