Thinking about traditional hockey-powerhouse cities bring to mind Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, New York, Detroit or Boston – the Original Six.
But what would it take to add the likes of Los Angeles, Nashville and Miami to this list? These teams represent areas better known for golf and surfing than hockey, yet there were three warm-weather city champions in consecutive years - Tampa Bay Lightning in 2005, Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, Anaheim Ducks in 2007. Now Los Angeles have an opportunity to make it four in the space of eight years, playing New Jersey in the Stanley Cup finals. Anaheim and Carolina were also finalists in 2003 and 2002.
How have these teams managed to become competitive while playing in non-traditional hockey markets?
While markets like Los Angeles and Miami do not possess the rich hockey tradition of Montreal and Boston, they have other advantages such as associations with global celebrities in entertainment and other sports. For free agents, these factors provide an attractive style of living to gravitate towards. Even the Raleigh market, while not an entertainment or lifestyle capital like Los Angeles or Miami, has proven to be successful. The local fan base has supported the team since it relocated in 1997, and was rewarded with a Stanley Cup championship in 2006.
Several of these teams have succeeded in non-traditional markets in three ways:
1. Show a commitment to winning – It is more fun to root for a winning team. This is the case in any sport, but for a hockey franchise struggling for fans’ attention against plenty of other sports and entertainment offerings, the imperative to win is even greater. The Carolina Hurricanes took only four years after relocating from Hartford to make it to the Stanley Cup finals. and less than 10 years to win Lord Stanley’s Cup. When the Los Angeles Kings were acquired by Bruce McNall in 1987, he wasted little time in being innovative and focused on a game-changing acquisition strategy. In 1988 he acquired Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers. Gretzky quickly turned the team into a Stanley Cup contending team and it went to the finals in 1993. This year, the bold acquisitions of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, from the Philadelphia Flyers and the Columbus Blue Jackets, played a big role in getting the Kings to the Cup finals. Meantime, the Florida Panthers, founded in 1993, have only been to the playoffs four times in their 18-year history including this season. In 2011-12, Florida ranked 21st in the league in total fan attendance. The marketing professionals associated with the Florida franchise know that the more a team wins, the more positive stories are written in the media, the more people are talking about the team and so fan attendance increases dramatically.
2. Try some new things – If franchises are trying to grow market share in a competitive and mature market, they need to be willing to try new tactics in order to grow. They cannot be afraid of failure. The Kings launched a bold, controversial billboard campaign this season. Three years ago, Carolina filmed eight spots in a campaign called “It’s a Caniac Thing,” showing a player executing a signature move with a commentator describing the move dramatically. Tampa Bay gave away tickets through a Twitter campaign and gave registered hockey players between the ages of 9 and 13 a chance to line up with the team during the playing of the national anthem.
3. Make the event an experience – As Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore discuss in their book “The Experience Economy” today’s marketplace is increasingly rewarding those organizations that make their offering an experience for the consumer. The same is true in hockey where stadiums and teams are trying to make each night on the ice more than just a game. Many arenas have music or entertainment acts between periods to extend the action and this is just the start. The new trend is to offer amusement park-type rides or activities, deliver world-class restaurants or dining options, and also increase the availability of technology to broaden the game experience. All of these efforts are to deliver an enhanced experience for the fan to get them to come back for more games.
Karl Moore is an associate professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University.
Devin Bigoness is a project director with Duke Corporate Education in the New York area.