On New Year's Day, NBC televised a game that has become that sport's centerpiece attraction. Hint: It's not a bowl game. It's the now three-year-old Winter Classic presented by the National Hockey League. Played before a sellout crowd of 38,000-plus at Boston's Fenway Park and viewed by the second-largest TV audience for a regular-season game since 1996, it serves as perhaps the league's best vehicle to energize its loyal fans and draw interest from casual observers.
This is a huge shift from where the league was just a few years ago, and it's due to a combination of smart business and PR plays by the NHL that have created solid buzz and goodwill among its stakeholders.
You might recall the 2004-2005 NHL lockout. The work stoppage put the league's survival in jeopardy. After all, die-hards will stick with their teams through almost anything, even putrid play. But when millionaires (players) and billionaires (owners) take their puck and go home for a full year, fans don't forgive so easily.
Since the games resumed, the NHL's primary goal has been to shorten the distance between the league and its fans. This particular annual event, played outdoors and in sub-freezing temperatures, strikes an obvious chord with hockey purists who likely played the game on frozen ponds in their youth. Add in the nice touch of the participating teams wearing their classic jerseys, as opposed to their modern sweaters, and you have a nostalgia-inducing event with a modern marketing sensibility. (Sales of hockey merchandise have spiked since the Classic debuted, according to league execs.)
The NHL has also stepped up its game in the social-media arena. Lacking the monolithic TV deal other pro sports leagues have – Versus, a cable network many don't receive, owns the national rights to the NHL – many of the league's better games can only be seen in local markets. Hard to pick up causal fans that way.
The NHL's solution: a partnership with Yahoo that allows online audiences to watch for free. And while other leagues restricted use of Twitter, the NHL embraces it. It held a contest on the popular site where fans could win tickets to a game of their choosing by following @NHL on Twitter and pick the winners of all the games on the season's opening Saturday.
Prior to the contest, @NHL had just over 6,000 followers. By contest's end, that figure surpassed 80,000. This past Wednesday, it had more than 289,000.
There are more fans to win over and more avenues to gain attention. But while all sports leagues will claim that fans are crucial in their initiatives, the NHL continues to prove that those aren't merely words.