I got an email from an old college friend this morning asking if I’d jumped on the Chicago Blackhawks bandwagon and purchased a sweet retro “sweater.” The Blackhawks enter the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the second seed in the Western Conference and currently are tied 1-1 in their opening round series against the Nashville Predators. But, back to my friend’s questions. The answer to the first question is, yes, I’ve jumped on board to the point that I don’t plan on missing any of the playoff action. The answer to the second question is, not yet, but only because I’m too cheap.
Getting the email solidified in my mind that something needed to be written about hockey, which seems to be experiencing if not a perfect storm of positive news, then at the very least a very strong weather pattern.
The view from Chicago, of course, is particularly rosy, I understand. The reemergence of the storied franchise under the leadership of owner, Rocky Wirtz, and team president, John McDonough, will be a case study in sports business classes for years to come. They’ve assembled a quality young team that enters the Stanley Cup Playoffs with high hopes to make a deep run.
But, it’s bigger than that. The NHL enters the Playoffs with solid news on the business front. At season’s end, the NHL can boast upticks in corporate sponsorship and ad spending, while TV ratings on broadcast partner Versus are up also. Variety reported on these trends here. (http://bit.ly/dCTQOk)
While the seeds that have sown the current boon were planted well before this February, the Winter Olympic Games hockey tournament did much to remind sports fans of the greatness of the game. League officials are admitting that the Olympics had a definitive positive impact on interest from business partners. That’s a very important sign since the more corporate partners get involved in using the NHL for marketing, the better it is for the sport’s growth. What the Olympics helped do is give hockey – particularly the NHL’s brand – better penetration. For sponsors to feel comfortable activating a property in a broad sense in major DMAs, they want to know that there is broad acceptance and interest in that property. No one ever questioned the intensity of the true hockey fan, but many wondered if there were enough of them. That seems as though it may be changing.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned how my friend’s email solidified my wanting to write about hockey. What originally motivated me to consider the topic was a wonderful experience I had this weekend meeting a cousin of mine for the first time. Kyle Fujisaki, (my second cousin once removed for those interested), is 13 and from Southern California. He is the son of my cousin, Mary D’Ambrosi Fujisaki, and was in town with his Pacific Selects team participating in the ChiTown Shuffle, a fairly major youth hockey tournament played in the Chicago suburbs. That an LA-based “selects” team could come to Chicago and compete successfully with teams from the Midwest and even Canada, though, gives you the sense that at a youth level the game is moving into new territory. Interestingly, statistics don’t support that there is a groundswell of new participation. It’s important to point out that the sport is quite expensive to play competitively and ice rinks aren’t nearly as accessible as basketball courts or even soccer fields. But, the “organization” behind youth hockey is clearly trending up.
With soccer, we’ve waited for the youth playing the sport to grow up and become “fans.” To some degree that may have happened. But, with the US-based MLS not being considered at the top of the International Soccer food chain, momentum in building stable growth has been stifled to some degree. That is not the case in hockey, where the NHL is indeed the top rung of the sport internationally. Therefore, growth in popularity of the pro league has the ability to grow interest in youth participation, just as youth participation should support continued popularity of the pro sport for years to come.
We’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the trends in the coming years just as we’ll be on the lookout for a nice price on one of those sweet retro Blackhawks sweaters.