You might have guessed from last week’s article that I’m pretty excited about hockey season starting up. Watching hockey is one of my favourite winter pastimes, not only for the immediate entertainment value, but for the off-the-ice strategy and storylines that play out each season. Among major sports, hockey is notoriously difficult to predict. Sports like baseball, football, and basketball have reliable advanced stats or game-breaking star players that make predictions fairly reliable. Basketball in particular is a sure thing each season – barring a massive, unheard-of upset, either Golden State or Cleveland will win the championship. Hockey is a game where anyone could win. Well, almost anyone. Teams like the Maple Leafs and Oilers have been able to turn around franchises that struggled for decades within the span of a few short seasons (or, for the Leafs, basically one dreadful, miserable, embarrassing one). Major league sports success isn’t just measured by championships, though. Sports teams are business ventures. That’s where marketing comes in: what do you do when your team isn’t good enough to compete yet? How do you fill the stands with fans?
Following today’s news that all-star centre Bo Horvat has signed a 6-year, $33 million extension, let’s look at the Canucks. As a franchise, they’ve been nearly good enough to win it all three times in four decades, losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 1982, 1994, and 2011. Two of those finals went to seven games. The Canucks may very well be the most successful team (perhaps short of the St Louis Blues) to never win a cup. After their most recent cup run in 2011, the team was left with a slew of bad contracts, untradeable players, and a diminished prospect pool. Six years later, they’re reaping what they’ve sown, ending the season with their lowest-ever goal total and placing second-last overall in the league, only ahead of the historically bad Colorado Avalanche. The Canucks ended the season as a team with nothing left in the tank.
When it’s better to blow it all up
Pro sports teams sell entertainment. The only way to justify the multi-million dollar salaries of people who are really good at playing games is by viewing them as entertainers, akin to great actors and artists. A low-scoring, losing team is the opposite of entertainment. The Canucks sell a bad product, and brand loyalty only extends so far.
Outside of the sporting world, many brands have been left in a similar marketing situation. With their product or reputation tarnished, they needed to find a way to rebuild trust and brand loyalty. In some cases, that means business as usual: fix the problem to the best of your ability, then keep selling as you always have. Consumers have short memories. For others, it requires a complete brand rebuild.
Remember British Petroleum? The multi-billion dollar energy company famously shifted its brand in the early 2000s, rejecting its shield logo for a sunflower logo. Increasingly, the company branded itself as BP, rather than British Petroleum, even giving itself the tagline ‘Beyond Petroleum’. All this despite the fact that their investment in oil extraction and refining outstripped their investment in alternative energy sources 10 to 1. It worked for a long time – at one point, BP was considered the greenest of the big energy companies by many consumers. After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, public opinion on BP plummeted. Looking at their stock prices over 10 years, you can see the sharp dip in the aftermath of the disaster. Of course, that’s followed by a return to relatively normal levels within a year, arguably buoyed by the hundred-million dollar marketing campaign to rehab their brand. Still, their product remained the same. They continued to invest heavily in petroleum extraction and refining. Sometimes, the appearance of change is valuable on its own.
The Youth Movement
Across the NHL, teams are getting younger. Once, an experienced team of wily veterans was the path to a cup. While veteran superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin anchored the Penguins and led them to back-to-back cups, in some ways they’re an exception, not a rule. Players of that caliber are just really, really good for the majority of their careers. The average NHL player, the Michael Froliks of the league, aren’t game changing enough to build a team around, and their veteran presence just won’t make the difference between competing for a cup and getting bounced in the first round. There are also marketing reasons to promote young talent, particularly for a struggling club like the Canucks.
Imagine your brand is in a losing scenario – you’re struggling to compete with the big players on price and selection, or the quality of your product has gone downhill. Assuming there’s nothing immediate to be done about your struggles, there may be great value for you in introducing a new product that purports to address those issues, and promoting that product. Whether or not it really addresses the problem almost doesn’t matter compared to the optics of doing something meaningful. The Canucks are in a very similar situation: their young players might not be the answer to their woes, but they can be marketed as such. Whether they can step up and make the team competitive remains to be seen, but at least by advertising 22 year old Bo Horvat instead of 36 year old Henrik Sedin, they’re giving fans hope for a brighter future.
If All Goes Awry
A few years ago, Oilers fans booed their own team on the way to the dressing room. Leafs fans infamously chucked their own jerseys on the ice during home games in 2015. Fans can only take so much before they turn on their beloved franchise. If the Canucks can’t build a better team in the next few years, they could be in big trouble… right?
Some markets are resistant to downturns. Most Canadian hockey franchises weather the storm pretty well, no matter how bad a team they have. The Leafs barely noticed a dent in profits year over year during their dark period (note that 2012/2013 was a shortened season). The Oilers’ highest year of earnings to date was the very same season their own fans booed them off the ice. Canadians have an appetite for hockey, and that insulates Canadian teams from the potential for true failure that some US franchises face. Take the Carolina Hurricanes, for instance. They’re a team on the upswing with recent playoffs success (they won a cup only a decade ago and made it to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009) who hover around Edmonton’s least profitable seasons on average, even in their winning years. A team that won a cup 11 years ago risks relocation after each season, while a team who hasn’t won since 1990 rakes in cash every year. As for the Canucks? Win or lose, I think their owners will find a way to console themselves.