Oct 2, 2019

Selling the NHL's stars despite hockey's team-first attitude

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Hockey players are taught from an early age that the name on the front means more than the name on the back, and that mindset remains firmly entrenched at the sport's highest level.

Why it matters: Selling individuals while not straying too far from hockey's team-first culture is easier said than done, but the NHL must rise to the challenge if it wants to attract the next generation of fans.

  • Every team sport is like that to a certain extent — they all preach teamwork and selflessness and, truly, that's how you win. But very few sports, if any, frown upon individualism as much as hockey has for the last century-plus.

Yes, but: In 2016, a study showed that the average age of NHL fans had risen 16 years between 2000 and 2016 — the biggest increase of any sport and an obvious indicator of stagnation.

  • To reverse that trend and create more buzz among the younger generations, the NHL has begun marketing its stars — both on and off the ice — as the NBA and NFL have done with great success.
"You're starting to see guys be promoted a little more, and it's nice because then you get to see some individual personalities come out, and in a sport where you're so often wearing helmets ... people don't get to relate to you face-to-face."
— Senators RW Bobby Ryan, per AP

Driving the news: Last week, the NHL announced a partnership with social media marketing platform Opendorse to help players build their personal brands and increase fan engagement.

  • How it works: All 31 teams can now quickly and easily send players specific photos, videos or GIFs, tailored to effectively engage their audiences. Players can then edit the message and publish the post with a single tap.
  • What they're saying: "As players, we create so many moments on the ice but rarely have access to it after the fact. With Opendorse, I get back to the dressing room after a win, and boom — there's a post ready to share with fans," said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang.
  • This isn't rocket science — it just makes it easier for players to post (good) content on the internet. But on a macro level, that can change how fans follow the sport.

The big picture: Like baseball, hockey is a regional sport at its core — and that comes with limitations.

  • While casual NFL fans will watch a Thursday night game even if their team isn't playing, that's not something most casual NHL fans are willing to do.
  • While ESPN can sell a Knicks fan on Giannis (Bucks) vs. LeBron (Lakers), NBC is going to have a much harder time selling a Capitals fan on Kucherov (Lightning) vs. McDavid (Oilers).
  • But, but, but: Will that always be the case? Perhaps not.

The bottom line: The team-first sport of hockey was not built for a world where sports fans are increasingly following superstars over teams, but that doesn't mean it can't adapt and thrive in it.

Go deeper: Hockey's "middle class" hit hardest by NHL salary caps

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