NHL brand still on thin ice: study

February 13, 2013  |  Rebecca Harris  |  Comments

Canadians’ love affair with hockey is on the rocks and the fallout is hurting the NHL’s brand value, according to a new study.

In a post-lockout survey of 2,000 Canadians by Level5 Brand Strategy, die-hard hockey fans showed a 66% increase in feeling under-appreciated by the NHL, compared to what they felt during the height of the lockout.

The research also found decreases of 15-20% in key areas such as trust, respect and confidence in hockey since November 2012, when Level5 conducted the first wave of the study. The bad feelings will hit the NHL where it hurts: more than 35% of “very passionate” fans claimed they will drastically reduce their ticket purchases, subscription channel purchases and hockey-related item purchases.

Even though the game’s back on, “things in many ways have gotten worse,” said David Kincaid, managing partner and CEO of Level5 Brand Strategy. “The fan is still not feeling like anybody is stepping up and taking accountability for what this whole NHL lockout did to them.” While broadcast numbers for NHL games have remained strong, the survey shows fans “are coming back with a chip on their shoulder,” added Kincaid.

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Three groups were identified in the survey: “very passionate” fans, “neutrals” and “dispassionate,” each representing one third of the general population. The NHL should be most concerned about “neutrals” who were on the fence about hockey even before the lockout, according to Kincaid.

“If [the league] wants to grow… you have to bring in the neutrals,” said Kincaid. “They’re the opportunity because you can’t get any more ‘very passionate’ fans in Toronto, for example. But the neutrals could be won over.”

Since the first study, “neutrals” feel 41% more negatively about the sport, with the dominant emotions being “disgust,” “upset” and “cheated.” This group also plans to reduce their NHL-related purchases by 50%.

But it’s not just sales of jerseys and foam fingers the NHL is losing out on. In a brand valuation conducted by Level5 partner Brand Finance Canada, the NHL has shed $300 million in brand value collectively amongst its teams as a result of the lockout.

“The NHL now has a 20-year history of creating periods of lost revenue during its lockouts and in each case, the NHL brand value has been slow to return before rising again,” said Edgar Baum, managing director of Brand Finance Canada, in a release. Now, “what remains to be seen is how long the resentment and diminished valuation will last.”

To win fans back after the lockout, NHL teams have offered ticket giveaways, free admission to practices and reduced prices on merchandise while the league took out apology ads. But Kincaid said that’s not nearly enough.

“After the release of the first study, I said the very worst thing the league could do was simply send out an apology letter in the sports sections. And that’s exactly what they did,” he said. “I’m not seeing the league proactively come forward with leadership to win the fans back.”

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