Hockey often gets the cold shoulder when it comes to generating heat among fans. But at the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver earlier this year, when the Canadian men’s hockey team won the gold medal with a dramatic overtime goal over the United States, 52.9 million viewers tuned in—the largest audience for a hockey game in 30 years, according to Nielsen.
A 2008 Harris Interactive Poll shows that only 5 percent of respondents list hockey as their favorite sport, but that’s a three-percentage-point increase over the past 25 years—a triumph compared to Major League Baseball’s seven-point slide during that time period, and pro basketball’s seven-point drop during just the last 10 years. Now all the National Hockey League (NHL) has to do is find a way to capitalize on that growth—an effort that may help the league regain the number-four spot among U.S. professional sports.
Like any business, the NHL is utilizing social media to connect with and draw customers. This year, the league created a social media department to oversee its 355,000 Twitter followers, as well as its 260,000 Facebook fans. The league takes advantage of these social networks to lure customers toward other media outlets.
Because the NHL accumulates so many online mentions (specific team names, players, events, etc.), officials opted for ViralHeat, a platform that offered a flat rate to monitor social networks—a set cost regardless of “hits.”
“We’re trying to develop an audience,” says Mike DiLorenzo, the NHL’s director of corporate communications. “[That] could [mean] inspiring a casual fan to engage with us or an avid fan to do more with us. By building windows into NHL.com, NHL Network, television-rights holders, and our other media properties, [we’re] giving fans an opportunity to come through those windows to see what we’re doing.”
DiLorenzo notes that the NHL’s fan community is far more widely dispersed than those of most professional sports leagues—with a smaller percentage of its fans root, root, rooting for a home team. Out-of-town fans face several disadvantages: Not only is it harder for them to attend games, but the NHL’s relatively modest national-television footprint leaves them unable even to watch their preferred team as often as local fans can, and they can’t go down to the local sporting-goods store to buy their favorite team’s jersey. The NHL,however, is trying to shorten the distance between those displaced fans and their favorite teams. Social media tools, for example, allow the league to knit small pockets of fans into one large community.
“What we do exceptionally well—what the other professional sports leagues and companies don’t do as well—is have a two-way dialogue [with customers],” DiLorenzo contends. “A lot of companies pay lip service to it…but if you look at our home-base Twitter feed, we have more two-way conversations going on than any other sports league and most any other brand out there [have]…. We’re responding to the dialogue with our fans. We’re enabling our fans to express their fandom. When they have viewing parties or Tweetups we send merchandise to them to make that emotional connection with them.”
Given that level of customer engagement, why is it that the NHL isn’t as popular as other major sports? A recent article in The Washington Post, for example, lauded the Washington Capitals for their aggressive approach to utilizing social networks; more important, the article also explains why social media marketing is especially important to the NHL, and why the league is so far behind the National Football League (NFL), whose TV rights garner more than $20 billion.
“The NFL consistently draws the highest television ratings among the four major professional sports leagues in North America,” according to the article, “and the frequent stoppages in play have made it attractive for advertisers seeking the attention of fans watching at home.… With NHL games often played at a frenetic pace and thus not ideally suited for the small screen, the league is far behind the NFL in television-ad revenue.”
As with any company facing fierce competition for a limited resource, the NHL has had to be on the cutting edge when it comes to marketing—thus the importance of the Chicago Blackhawks’ selection for “Best Brand Use of Twitter” in the Third Annual Mashable Open Web Awards. According to organizer Mashable.com, the awards are an international online-voting competition covering major innovations in Web technology and achievements in social media—and the ’Hawks beat out “thousands of nominees” for the award, including both sports and non-sports businesses.
“The [fans] picked us up on their backs and took us to the award,” says Brad Boron, the Blackhawks’ assistant for new media and publications. “What we do doesn’t matter without their enthusiasm and passion.”
The Blackhawks use the team Twitter feed to post live game updates, answer fan questions, respond to fan concerns, and share—or, in the microblogging site’s parlance, “retweet”—what fans are posting about the team. The team also recently created a WordPress blog that enables fans to ask players questions.
“If fans didn’t tell us what they like, or what the team needs to do more of, we wouldn’t be [using social networks],” Boron says. “They drive the level of engagement and what we deliver to them.”
The Blackhawks have approximately 25,000 followers on Twitter and 165,000 fans on Facebook, each figure second-highest in the league behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. Surpassing the Penguins may be difficult—Pittsburgh’s team captain, Sydney Crosby, is arguably the game’s most-popular figure, and happens to have scored that gold-medal-winning goal for Team Canada.