The rink lights flicker on, the announcers call goals, and the Jumbotron is fired up. It has all the trappings of a National Hockey League game, but for one minor detail: On the team benches, the players’ skates don’t reach the ground.
The NHL lockout has kept the regulation-sized players away, and has left advertisers and sponsors in the lurch.
But one company has found a way to make use of its team sponsorships even in the absence of a regular season. Sport Chek took advantage of suddenly flexible ice time at two NHL arenas in Calgary and Toronto, and hosted some minor-league hockey players for a game on big league ice.
On Friday, the company released a video online and on social media websites featuring the children, aged 7 to 11, bathed in arena spotlights and cheered on by their parents in seats that would normally cost $400 a pop.
“Even though the NHL is not on, and the lockout is here, we’re still committed to hockey communities,” said Frederick Lecoq, vice-president of marketing at FGL Sports, a division of Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. that runs the Sport Chek chain.
Mr. Lecoq insisted the initiative has nothing to do with the marketing lacuna created by the lockout. Rather, it is a much-needed evolution in the company’s approach to sports sponsorships.
The retailer has been a team sponsor of the Toronto Maple Leafs since 2007, and the Calgary Flames since 2001. Team sponsorships give Sport Chek promotional opportunities at the arenas, such as rink-board advertising.
“We need to move from sponsoring being on-site advertising, to more co-branding,” Mr. Lecoq said, adding that goes for the future, when the season is back on.
The goal for Sport Chek is to create an emotional connection with consumers. Earlier this year, Toronto ad agency Anomaly demonstrated that expensive marketing partnerships are not needed for a company to cater to Canadians’ love of hockey. Its client, Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd., released a Super Bowl commercial in Canada for the Budweiser brand; it showed an event at which it rounded up 500 “fans” to fill an arena in Port Credit, Ont., surprising a rec league hockey game with cheering crowds, mascots and announcers.
The Sport Chek video has a similar feel, marketing its hockey connection at the grassroots level. The company has a program to help minor-league hockey teams and players save money on equipment and other costs, and it is speaking to community hockey leagues and the parents who are Sport Chek’s customers, Mr. Lecoq said.
The Calgary Flames already ran a program called the Big League Experience for both children and adults, which helped to inspire this initiative, said Rollie Cyr, the Flames’ vice-president of sales and customer service.
In the past, however, groups had to sell or buy a certain number of tickets for the Flames or the junior team the Calgary Hitmen to get the reward. “The kids were the net recipients,” Mr. Cyr said.
Sport Chek now plans to do more events in November and December, and is in talks with other teams to expand the program. “We need to do more,” Mr. Lecoq said. “We should keep the game alive.”