Even if you are not a cable customer, Rogers Communications Inc. could soon be coming to your living room. In person.
As it seeks to make good on its 12-year, $5.2-billion agreement to become the country’s hockey broadcaster, the company is embarking on a tour of 10 cities across the country. Representatives from both Rogers and the National Hockey League will be going to local minor hockey associations, sports pubs, and even into the homes of people who are interested in becoming “fan advisers.”
Rogers and the league are funding the research tour together to learn how Canadians’ hockey viewing habits are changing – and how better to market the sport to them.
The “listening tour” will include all seven cities with NHL teams, plus three other markets where hockey has a strong foothold. Red Deer, Alta., Sudbury, Ont., and Kingston, Ont. are on the list of possible stops.
The researchers will focus on gathering feedback from three priority groups: new Canadians, existing core fans, and young people, whose changing media consumption habits are posing a challenge to the entire industry.
“We have iconic Canadian marketing partners – like Canadian Tire, Tim Hortons, Scotiabank, for example – all of them are looking to connect with new customers, and leverage their association with the NHL,” the league’s chief marketing officer, Brian Jennings, said. “Our brand, but also all hockey, you can see how important it is in the social fabric of Canadians’ lives. That’s a great position to be in from a marketing perspective. But you never want to take it for granted.”
It’s also a crucial effort for Rogers, which shocked the broadcasting world in November with its massive deal for the national broadcast and digital rights to NHL games, outmaneuvering CBC and BCE Inc.’s TSN with its bid.
At a presentation on Tuesday to media buyers and advertisers at the former home ice of the Toronto Maples Leafs, Maple Leaf Gardens, Rogers said its NHL lineup will include regional coverage of all 82 regular season games played by the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames, and Edmonton Oilers. The company said it will also carry 53 Toronto Maple Leafs games, including 40 carried nationally.
To make its ambitious programming investment profitable, however, Rogers needs to learn how best to reach hockey fans beyond the TV screen, said Dale Hooper, senior vice-president of marketing and consumer insights at Rogers Media.
It has long been known, for example, that younger people are consuming more TV online, and that even when they do watch broadcasts they are increasingly active on “second screens” such as tablets and smartphones at the same time. Rogers wants to know how to prioritize its social media activity adjacent to broadcasts, what young viewers are looking for through digital channels, and what to prioritize.
“I have got to believe there’s a gem of an idea out there with a young hockey fan that we won’t think of unless they have a chance to put up their hand and talk about it,” Mr. Hooper said. “We grew up with hockey cards and Hockey Night in Canada, and they’ve grown up with apps and smartphones.”
In the case of new Canadians, both Rogers and the NHL have a stake in recruiting them as fans.
According to research released in August from Bauer Hockey Inc. and Hockey Canada, almost two-thirds of new Canadians said they would consider signing their children up for hockey, and one-fifth said they “definitely” would consider it. But the report also found that concerns over safety, time commitment and cost were concerns for all families deciding whether to participate.
Even for new Canadians who sign their children up for hockey or start playing themselves, the NHL’s research has shown a lag time of roughly three years before that participation translates into them becoming NHL fans – a window both the league and the broadcaster hope to shorten.
And while the new research effort will look to those two groups to build a sustainable future fan base, it will also ask existing fans for their input. The more effective Rogers is at recruiting viewers to its games, across all platforms, the more advertising dollars it will glean from the deal.
On Tuesday the company announced it will air more than 130 games in the marquee Hockey Night in Canada slot on CBC on Saturdays. Hoping to make NHL games a tradition on Sundays, Rogers will host that night’s national broadcast from community rinks, featuring local pro player profiles and a “grassroots” feel.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the Rogers deal is the kind of multi-platform deal sports leages dream about.
"It's never been a better time to be a fan," he said.
Rogers’ TSN rival Sportsnet will carry national Wednesday night games involving a Canadian team, while Sportsnet One will air a U.S. match. For now, Rogers left unanswered one major question about its hockey plan: whether it will carry Don Cherry’s Coach’s Corner.
The NHL hopes keeping pace with shifting demographics will help it to remain relevant in Canada.
“You can look at a lot of research, you can look at a lot of data, but those key nuggets you can take away from conversations ... are important for us,“ the league’s Mr. Jennings said. “It’s critically important for us to make sure that we have our finger on the pulse of a changing landscape.”