Harvard Business School
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Rev. December 28, 1995
Marketing The National Hockey League
In early August 1995 Gary Bettman, Commissioner of the NHL, Stephen Solomon, COO of the NHL, and Rick Dudley, COO of NHL Enterprises,1 met in their New York office to chart a strategy for marketing the NHL in 1995 and beyond. After a spectacular 1993-94 season, the NHL’s 1994-95 season had been somewhat mixed; the league had suffered a labor dispute and played an abbreviated season. But there had been important achievements. For the first time in over 20 years the NHL had a network television contract in the United States. Fan support for the shortened season had been surprisingly resilient with attendance averaging 95% for the league overall. In looking to the future, Gary Bettman proposed, Our goal is to take hockey to the next level. We have a great product. Hockey has been successful over the past 75 years. We’ve thrilled fans and provided financial returns for our owners. Unbelievably, we’ve accomplished this with little exposure. With the right exposure and support, hockey can grow its fan base phenomenally, creating value for our marketing partners, our owners, and our players. While everyone on the management team agreed that the goal was to grow the fan base, there were differing opinions on how to achieve that growth. Stephen Solomon was focused on television as the growth driver, while Rick Dudley was more concerned with achieving growth through nurturing a young, grassroots fan base.
Background of the NHL
Ice hockey is played with six players on each side: the object of the game is to put a round disk called a puck in the opponent's net using L-shaped hockey sticks. Each team plays with three offensive players, two defenders, and a goaltender on the ice at one time. As in many contact sports, the players wear protective padding and helmets. The game is played in three periods of 20 1
The NHL was established as a not-for-profit entity established by the 26 teams to govern the league. The NHL offices were responsible for league operations, broadcasting, television and team services, corporate communications, public relations and special events. National Hockey League Enterprises (NHLE) was the for profit marketing arm of the league encompassing licensing, fan development, corporate marketing, publishing and new technology.
Research Associate Marie Bell prepared this case under the supervision of Professor V. Kasturi Rangan as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of an administrative situation. Copyright © 1995 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685 or write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.
Marketing The National Hockey League
minutes each, with one abbreviated overtime if regular season games end in a tie following the first three periods. There is a 10-15 minute break between periods when the 200-foot ice rink is resurfaced with a Zamboni machine. The pace of the game is extremely fast and there are limited time-outs allowed in the game. (Exhibit 1 outlines a typical hockey rink). Players substitute into the game seamlessly, with one "shift" jumping onto the ice as the other gets off (known as changing on the fly). Body contact is part of the sport as players attempt to gain possession of the puck. Stoppages in the action are due to infractions such as improper passing (offside, icing) or penalties (roughing, tripping, hooking, etc.) Due to its speed the game can be difficult for a novice to follow as players seem to miss passes, get knocked...
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