NHL gets big audiences, but where were the new ads?

Is caution called for at the start of a delayed season?

Is caution called for at the start of a delayed season?

Those who watched the NHL‘s return Saturday may have been expecting new, compelling TV spots to welcome the league back.

Instead, they were treated to old work they’d already seen. Fans saw no investment in new creative from major brands such as McDonald’s, Tim Hortons and Chevrolet (to name but a few). Only a handful of commercials that aired during Hockey Night In Canada even mentioned the sport.

Saturday’s games were the NHL’s first since the lockout began four months ago. Shouldn’t advertisers have seized the league’s return as an opportunity for exciting new work? Hockey is Canada’s national winter sport, after all, and we’ve seen brands produce quick-turnaround ads to celebrate playoff winners and gold medalists within minutes of a winning goal. Where was that enthusiasm Saturday night?

The ratings suggest a missed opportunity for advertisers. More than 3.3 million people tuned in to watch the Toronto vs. Montreal game, making it the most-watched regular season primetime east game in CBC history. According to the CBC, BBM data revealed the game reached 9.2 million Canadians, or 27% of the population. (In the States, NBC reported a 67% audience increase in some of its regional coverage, as well as an overnight rating of 2.0. This makes it the highest American overnight rating for regular-season coverage in 11 years, not counting the NHL Winter Classic event.)

However, David Kincaid, CEO of Level 5 Strategy Group, says brands are smart to be hesitant, at least in the “welcome back frenzy” phase: “They’re being cautious about re-entry.”

Kincaid says advertisers were not only waiting to learn how high Saturday’s ratings were, but are now watching for rating consistency before proceeding with new ads. This is perhaps why Budweiser, for example, signed a new partnership with popular commentary segment Coach’s Corner but ran existing creative during the commercial breaks. Similarly, Scotiabank stuck with commercials focused on the community element of the game itself, rather than on alignment with the NHL brand.

Carlos Dunlap, director of marketing and content at LoyaltyOne, said the NHL and its teams were wise to focus on getting people excited about the game again. In an effort to lure fans back, several teams invited the public to watch practices last week; in Montreal, 17,000 people showed up. In Toronto, free tickets were given away to fans at Nathan Phillips Square. The Ottawa Senators gave free tickets to kids under 14 who will attend games with their parents. Players themselves have been remarkably visible, signing autographs and showing up to meet-and-greets, despite the pressures of a shortened training season and heavily scrutinized season openers.

So far, the plan has been working – arenas across North America were packed last weekend with most games either selling out or showing significant attendance increases.

But advertisers will want to know if the excitement is sustainable in all markets.

Duncan Hannay, senior vice-president of marketing at Scotiabank, said he’s confident that the momentum will stick. Scotiabank didn’t hesitate to go ahead with its community-focused hockey advertising, and integrated its sponsored messaging into many of the events leading up to Saturday’s games. “When we learned that the hockey season was back on, we were all relieved and excited,” said Hanny. “It’s a big part of our brand strategy.”

Kincaid said he applauds the players for interacting with fans and trying to create a sense of excitement, but that the NHL needs to be more apologetic on behalf of the league. “One week will not a season make,” he said. “From the league level all I saw was a print ad.”

Will the big events, the ticket giveaways, the autographs, the packed arenas and the apologies be enough damage control to keep the NHL’s ratings – and its reputation – strong enough for advertisers? According to Kincaid, “time is going to tell.”

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