If there’s ever going to be an NHL Winter Classic somewhere in Southern California, John Collins will make it happen.
The NHL’s puckish chief operations officer, going into his fifth season with the league, has been the primary fulcrum into making outdoor hockey one of the sport’s most anticipated events of the year, a New Year’s Day celebration crosschecking its way into college football day of bowl games.
The 49-year-old marketing man with 15 years experience in the NFL has a brain that’s worth picking about where hockey can go as the league starts its 95th season this weekend. He made the trek to Helsinki and Stockholm to watch the four teams open in Europe — including the Kings and Ducks — but before he left, he did some forward-thinking talking:
Question: In an interview you did recently with Ad Age magazine, you said that you’re the one in charge of making the NHL think bigger and push envelopes . . . and that includes, you said, making the Stanley Cup playoffs as big as March Madness from a TV ratings and advertising standpoint. Is that mad?
Answer: Look, that’s a high bar. But we think when we look at brand research, not just among hockey fans but among all sports fans, the Stanley Cup is up there with the Super Bowl and World Series and March Madness as one of the biggest events in sports, and it has that brand equity. It doesn’t come right now with that size of TV ratings, but as part of the recent U.S. TV negotiations (with NBC and Versus, expanding the partnership for the next 10 years), we felt that we wanted to stress with our TV partner a plan that guarantees every game through the playoffs be nationally televised in its entirety – and that’s a big change. Last year, 40 percent of the first two rounds weren’t aired nationally. Go back two years to the Flyers and Blackhawks in the finals – none of the Flyers games in the first two rounds were on nationally. You never know who’ll end up in the finals, so we want to tell the stories as early as possible to expose fans to those teams. To have the opportunity to take things to the next level, one of our big announcements was a sponsorship deal with Coors. That’s a big piece of it. When I worked at the NFL, they did a phenomenal job at promoting that league and taking it to bars and restaurants and tailgates. That’s a big hook for the Stanley Cup playoffs, to elevate the playoffs as a unifying force and get people together with friends watching games.
Q: There are a couple of great L.A. gathering places to watch hockey in L.A. — we frequent the Redondo Beach Cafe, which is a huge Kings hangout, as well as the Canadiens. You can see more people in L.A. flocking to bars and restaurants watching Stanley Cup playoffs?
Collins: We did a lot of focus group work on L.A. over the summer, and I think we learned a lot of things. They feel good about hockey and we need to make it more a part of their lives. NBC-Universal will help, and the Kings, along with Tim Leiweke and his boys will do their part.
Q: The other part of your quote in the story I read went: We’re not going to sit until hockey reaches its rightful position in terms of relevance in sports and entertainment. I never got a sense that hockey fans worry about things like “rightful position” in the grand scheme. In fact, I think they sometimes embrace the fact it can go under the radar and doesn’t need to compare itself with the NFL or NBA or Major League Baseball. I know the players could benefit, financially for one, for having the game raise the bar, but do fans need to feel uncomfortable that the game can get too big, and maybe price them out of some things they’re accustomed to having?
Collins: From my own experience – going back to 15 years marketing and selling the NFL – I’m so impressed with the skill level needed to play the game. The things fans love about football, they love about hockey – contact, team sport, an admiration for athletes to get out there and compete in a sport that’s so fast. If you just took the heading off of it, and it wasn’t football, they’d be talking about hockey. A lot of it now is making the game bigger and promoting it louder, and finding the right partners to get the message. And if it’s a Winter Classic, who doesn’t want to go to an NFL stadium and watch a great event? Having the Olympics in Vancouver last year set the high watermark in what hockey can do with ratings. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the game. We just need to push ourselves a little more.
Q: But again, the question: Can it get too big for the fans and move things out of their comfort level? Isn’t money what caused the sport to go miss a whole season with a lockout not too long ago?
Collins: I can’t see how that would be really a problem. When you talk about our focus, and when we say “making it bigger,” our teams already play to 93 percent sellouts. In many markets, hockey is out rating basketball as a local sport. We saw that in Boston when the Bruins and Celtics went head to head. In my view, that has more to do with our national promotion of the game, and how it is shared in the minds of sports fans that the NHL can make major gains. There is probably some segment there who feel (the NHL) is a club that not everyone knows about, and that’s a cool thing. But it’s also fun to be the most popular kid in school, too.
Q: What’s the greatest opportunity you see the NHL ready to seize upon in the next six months?
Collins: It’s how all these parts come together. With the young stars across the league, the number of markets re-energized with great stories, with the new and old partners who feel new who share in our initiatives to grown the sport and have the resources to do it. We’ve never had a partner with resources like NBC-U who make hockey so important in the growth of their company. Coors and Bridgestone and Verizon show we are attracting blue-chip advertisers and marketers who want to use hockey to get their message out. Honda is another great example, with a place headquartered in Los Angeles. They may spend a lot of money in advertising, but they don’t do a lot of sponsorship. They’re looking for families and dependability, and that’s the core of hockey families.
Q: One of the things going on in hockey these days are the dangers of concussions and how they affect league rules. Mike Emrick (the lead voice of the NHL for NBC) said the other day he’s worried that rule changes will “reduce our game to football’s two-hand touch.” How to you market around that?
Collins: From a marketing standpoint, you always worry about the brand. Concussions are always going to be an issue with contact sports and our new safety programs with Brendan Shanahan in the players’ association and with Mathieu Schneider out there, they’re really doing a lot to being to improve on the player’s safety despite the game is so physical and played at such a high speed.
Q: An interesting stat we saw this week: The last three Stanley Cup winners began their season on a trip to Europe. When the Kings and Ducks went to London to play their first two games against each other in 2008, it was still a pretty new thing. Do teams now ask the league to make the trips now so they can create a bonding experience that really jumpstarts the season?
Collins: I know (the Kings’ head of business) Luc Robitaille was interested in that statistic. I think more teams are wrapping their heads around it and they can see how they can integrate it into their training camps. I agree, the teams have found this to be a bonding tool, and we can look at this in different ways. Maybe we can do them later in the season – it doesn’t have to always be the opening. Maybe it can even be later in October, past Thanksgiving, into early December. There are a lot of windows where teams can even open at home, energize the home fan base and then head to play in Europe.
Q: Are there NHL teams now in cities where they benefit the league best now? If you had the ability to drop 30 teams into 30 prime spots, would it be much different than how it is now?
Collins: There’s a lot that goes into all that. I thought you were going to ask about us having teams based in Europe. That’s a huge opportunity for us, with a third of the players in the league being European. We had 22 of them in the All Star game last year. Hockey is such an important sport we see huge opportunities. We’ve just signed more rights deals with Europe to emphasize broader coverage of the game. We just launched seven new foreign-language websites to serve those European fans better with more localized content. It’s a big initiative.
Q: How do you view L.A. as a hockey market, Southern California as a hockey base? In the post-Gretzky era, do you see the buzz created more than a decade ago having a chance to come back and grow at this point?
Collins: L.A. has come a long way. You see players now drafted high in the first round who grew up in Southern California, likely as a result of Gretzky and what went on there. It’s a town that loves winners and Tim Leiweke and the Kings look very well positioned. Maybe all it will take is having a Winter Classic at the Rose Bowl at night one of these days.
Q: On New Year’s Day? That could be a problem.
Collins: Maybe at Farmer’s Field?
Q: Now we see where you’re going. Does L.A. have to wait that long, until a field is built that might not even get built? Can we try somewhere else?
Collins: We are constantly trying to improve the technology on the ice in the rink system, and the guys have been able to get it constant at 50 degrees. So I don’t know. Maybe we get one of those nice, cool nights up in the hills. Maybe we do it sooner rather than later.
Obviously, the Rose Bowl, we can’t compete with their New Year’s Day tradition, but we could easily do it another day, or another place.
Q: With the Kings wearing their new road jerseys? How does that make a statement?
A: I like ’em. They look great. I know they worked close with our consumer products group, but in this instance, a lot of the direction came from the club wanting to embrace their heritage and move it forward. We were just part of the process there.
Q: So how would the rest of the country see hockey in Southern California if there was an outdoor game, either at Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium or the parking lot at the Santa Monica pier?
Collins: I can imagine player introductions as the players are skating off the Santa Monica pier with the Ferris Wheel in the background, right onto the ice. Then we know we’ve made it. L.A. loves its big events and a Classic is such a good event that it resonates with not just hockey fans but all fans young and old. It’d be great to figure out how to do it.