Case Study by Jess Mikula and Han Ma
September 16, 2004 marked the start of the 2004-2005 National Hockey League (NHL) lockout, a labor dispute which resulted in the cancellation of the 88th season of the NHL. Lasting 310 days, the lockout was the first time that a major North American professional sports league canceled an entire season due to a labor dispute. For the first time since 1919, the Stanley Cup was not awarded.
The league attempted to convince the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) to accept a salary structure in order to guarantee teams what the league deemed “cost certainty.” On July 21, 2004, the NHL presented the NHLPA with six different options for cost certainty. The NHLPA rejected all six options, preferring to keep the system in place where players negotiate with teams on an individual basis. Teams had control over how much they wanted to spend on their players. However, several teams had declared bankruptcy. The NHL wanted to guarantee a competitive balance among all teams rather than give the more wealthy franchises an unfair advantage.
There was a series of meetings held between the NHL and the players association in which the sides exchanged proposals, but both sides remained deadlocked on the issue. The league and NHLPA exchanged a series of offers and counter-offers before NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman sent a letter on February 15, 2005, with a final proposal and a deadline of 11:00 a.m. the following day. The players association presented a counter-offer, which the NHL rejected. Bettman announced the official cancellation of the 2004-2005 season on February 16, 2005.
The sides reconvened in June to prevent the cancellation of another season. On July 13, 2005, the league and NHLPA reached a deal in principle, meaning no contract was officially signed. Both the league and players association wanted to make the announcement that day because it was the only day of the year when none of the four major North American sports (basketball, baseball, football, and hockey) had an event scheduled. On July 21, 2005, the Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified by the NHLPA, and the owners approved it the following day to officially end the lockout.
As a result of the lockout, the NHL alienated its fans. In order to make it up to them, the league implemented several rule changes to make the game more exciting for fans by increasing entertainment value and promoting scoring. Among the rule changes were an increase in the size of each team’s offensive zone, smaller equipment for goaltenders, and the elimination of tie games. Under the new rule, tie scores are settled with a five-minute, four-on-four, sudden-death overtime period followed by a one-on-one shootout until a winner is determined. Both the players and coaches were also made more accessible to the fans by the addition of microphones during telecasts. As part of an integrated marketing initiative, the NHL looked to a re-branding effort to recreate the league’s brand and image, while reviving the sport of hockey in the
The NHL hired four separate outside agencies to handle its re-branding efforts. Conductor, a branding and entertainment marketing firm, was the lead agency in the campaign. CarryOn Communications, a public relations agency, was responsible for managing the brand and consumer public relations efforts. PHD, a media planning and buying group, was responsible for conducting general media services. Rogers & Cowan, an entertainment public relations agency, was responsible for handling entertainment public relations opportunities. This case study focuses on the efforts of the lead agency involved in the campaign, Conductor Entertainment. http://conductorla.com
Conductor developed the “My NHL” campaign, which featured the game of hockey as a battle with the players in warrior roles. The company did this primarily through print and television advertisements, which were able to be customized for each of the 30 teams, as well as used for the league as a whole. Conductor developed a five-part series of 30 second advertisements, which were designed to play both individually and back-to-back as a short film. The commercials told the story of the hockey player, beginning with his pre-game preparations and continuing to the end of the game and victory. The segments were entitled It’s Time, It Begins,
The concept of “My NHL” was a completely integrated marketing campaign. Each individual team incorporated the advertisements into its marketing efforts, splicing the commercials with video highlights. The “My NHL” slogan was also incorporated by each franchise, edited for the team. For example, the Ottawa Senators used “My Sens” as a slogan. The league conveyed this one central, unified message through print materials such as each team’s media guide cover.
The campaign was launched in September 2005, just before the start of the 2005-2006 season, through a premiere in
It is widely debated whether or not the “My NHL” campaign was a success. Conductor’s efforts attracted an extraordinary amount of local and national press coverage both in the
The advertisements also caused controversy with some people deeming them “offensive” to women. Martha Burk, the National Council of Women’s Organizations chair who was known for staging an unsuccessful protest outside of the Augusta National golf club, called the advertisements “gratuitous” and stated that the woman in the locker room is a sex object. This ultimately attracted more media attention, though Burk’s claims were dismissed. The commercials were never pulled from the NHL website or NBC.
The league’s revenue goals were surpassed by $300 million, and NHL ticket sales reached record numbers. According to research in USA Today, attendance at games rose 4 percent from the 2003-2004 season, and arenas were filled to 91.1 percent capacity. Twenty-one of the NHL’s 30 teams showed increased attendance, with three teams showing the same attendance because they were selling out before the lockout.
However, national television ratings actually fell. This may be due largely to the lack of a deal with a major network. Prior to the lockout, the NHL had an exclusive deal with ESPN to broadcast games. After the lockout, however, ESPN did not renew the deal. The NHL turned to Outdoor Life Network (now Versus) to broadcast games. This switch made it difficult for the audience to watch games without an expensive sports package like DirecTV’s Center Ice.