The hockey season has been under way for a month, but the
National Hockey League and ESPN fired the real opening salvo of their new partnership last
week with the launch of an image campaign aimed at encouraging regional hockey fans to
broaden their horizons and join the national audience.
With the tag line, "The NHL on ESPN. This is the
game," the league and the network also hope to reinforce their unique relationship by
making the words "hockey" and "ESPN" synonymous.
This is the first season in a five-year, $600 million
package with The Walt Disney Co.'s ABC as the broadcast partner and sister networks
ESPN and ESPN2 sharing expanded national cable duties.
Anyone expecting another season of quirky black-and-white
commercials with a sense of humor is out of luck. Ditto for those who think hockey spots
should be full of action, body checks and frenetic shooting.
Instead, the seven promos are quietly dramatic portraits
that take the viewer into the very essence of hockey as explained by narrator, actress and
hockey fan Susan Sarandon.
In the first season after the departure of Wayne Gretzky,
no one player stars. The first spot shows very powerful Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia
Flyers as Sarandon explains the "Unwritten Rules" of the game that sometime lead
to fights on the ice.
The campaign -- created by ESPN's lead agency, Weiden
& Kennedy -- debuted Halloween night during Sunday Night Football on ESPN, and
it will air on all four ESPN networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews and ESPN Classic) and ABC
throughout the regular season. Print, radio and Internet elements will follow.
The action spots haven't completely disappeared.
Footage-driven, tune-in promos featuring marquee players will air for each of the 22
exclusive ESPN broadcasts.
The decision to target hockey fans, or people who at least
know the game, instead of trying to convert a general sports audience grew out of research
and a half-dozen focus groups around the country.
"I think that in the past, with other broadcast
partners, there was a sense that you needed to shout about it and get in your face,"
NHL group vice president of communications Bernadette Mansur said. "This was an
absolutely united effort with the league, with ESPN and with Weiden. We did focus groups
and we did market research. The whole directive is to take this regional audience and
build a national fan base."
"We wanted to create spots that in a way almost
reintroduce the sport and show it for all of its finesse and beauty," explained Lee
Ann Daly, senior vice president, marketing and ESPN Enterprises. "This is a way of
reinforcing something that people might already feel about hockey, to get passionate about
it beyond their team loyalty."
The result is a campaign designed to showcase "this
really complex, beautiful game that if you get, you really get it. You understand that
connection. You don't have to just watch your team. As for the quiet, I think that
quietness is part of what's going to make them stand out. The rest of the network is
Daly added, "A lot of times when we've created
campaigns, they're targeted at a broader audience to get people interested, but this
campaign tries to tap into people that already have an interest."
"In the past, we had the black-and-whites, with the
very humorous side of hockey, and those were successful and right for the time," said
Jon Goldberg, part of the creative team at Weiden & Kennedy. "But those had been
done for a number of years. We all agreed that we needed to go in another direction --
more serious, more dramatic."
The league usually uses its two in-game promotional spots
for a separate, league-oriented image campaign. This season marks a departure.
"We are airing these promos in our in-game
institutional spots. That's how committed we are in terms of this message. We are
embracing this," Mansur said. "When you think NHL, you will think ESPN, ESPN2