Constant connection with fans is a key goal

It still might be true "absence makes the heart grow fonder," as English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly wrote in the 19th century, but one of the National Hockey League's priorities today is to make it easier than ever for our fans to stay "present" and closely connected with the game.

This means on their chosen digital device, no matter the time of day, and regardless where the players, teams, or fans are situated.

We are in the business of entertainment, excitement, and engagement. Serving fans' needs in real time is more crucial than ever.

The access offered by NHL.com is dramatically more sophisticated than it was a few years ago. Along with articles and photos that provide more standard two-dimensional coverage, the game's sights and sounds come alive in the site's video player, which offers original programming, live games, highlights, post-game interviews, statistics, a library of vintage games, and other content that brings fans a richer, more comprehensive experience.

This summer, for example, our board of governors approved a rule pertaining to contact with the head. In addition to providing the rule's wording via press release - yes, we still do them - NHL.com showed the video our hockey operations department created to help our players, coaches, and officials understand the rule and how it would be enforced.

Giving fans such access brings them further inside the game. Social media channels such as Twitter and Facebook help connect our fans to each other and our key personalities.

At the start of the season, we had two teams each in Stockholm, Helsinki, and Prague as part of the Premiere Games series we debuted four seasons ago. Prior to those games, which are regular-season contests, the touring clubs - the Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild, Phoenix Coyotes, and San Jose Sharks - played exhibition contests in such places as Belfast, Northern Ireland and St. Petersburg, Russia. We had NHL.com reporters and PR staffers assigned to the tour and their blogs and tweets added depth and texture to their coverage. They tweeted links to such photos as the players visiting the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and behind-the-scenes areas at the Belfast arena - all providing a powerful connection for the fans who couldn't be there.

Our fans have responded enthusiastically to that outreach and to other initiatives, including the variety of larger-scale events that complement what might be pro sports' most competitively balanced regular season.

We sustain high intensity with the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, which has given our fans the opportunity to come together to celebrate hockey and its outdoor roots. The 2011 game will feature fierce rivals the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. The event will be chronicled by episodes of HBO's 24/7 - a tremendous opportunity to bring NHL drama to a wider audience.

This season, the Winter Classic is followed by All-Star Weekend in Raleigh, NC, as well as the Heritage Classic outdoor game in Calgary. We crescendo with the playoff races - which routinely go to the season's final week; last season, one playoff spot was determined in a final-game shootout - and the playoffs themselves. We follow that with our Awards show from Las Vegas, after which we welcome incoming players at the Entry Draft. Our calendar of events now runs nearly year-round.

More events give our fans more outlets for their passion and our business partners more activation opportunities. The result has been stronger brand equity with avid followers and more casual enthusiasts. Last season, NHL.com set records for unique visitors, page views, and video starts. Sponsorship and ad sales surged. More globally, during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 9, #StanleyCup was the top trending topic on Twitter. At its peak, #StanleyCup was tweeted more than 10,000 times per hour during that game, in which the Blackhawks clinched their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. On June 9 and 10, five of Google's top 20 searches were Stanley Cup-related.

We feature so many more media assets now than a few years ago: NHL.com, NHL Mobile, NHL Network, and NHL Radio on Sirius XM (on which I do a weekly show and take questions from the fans). We have pages on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, and MySpace. Wins and losses matter, of course, but the dialogue with our fans matters more. We listen to each other, which is the essential dynamic in sports today.

Gary Bettman has been National Hockey League Commissioner since February 1, 1993.

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