Skip to main content
nhl lockout

Wake up, NHL!

The league has a major marketing challenge facing it, whenever it decides to end the current lockout – and the longer it goes on, the worse it will get.

Such are the astonishing – yet, in other ways, not at all surprising – findings of a major survey conducted by Level5 Strategy Group, a survey that took place, significantly, in the slightly calmer period just prior to the recent press-conference histrionics in New York and the league deciding to sue the players' union to determine, bizarrely, that it is in fact a union.

Level5 is a 10-year-old company based in Toronto that has done "brand" analysis for such major enterprises as the NFL, NBA, 3M Co., Rogers Communications Inc., Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd., Second Cup Ltd., BCE Inc., Petro-Canada and many others.

Its expertise lies in in-depth interviews that determine the "emotional attachment" people have to various products.

In the case of the NHL and its players, the abiding feelings of the moment are betrayal at one end of the scale and utter lack of interest at the other. If you're looking for warm and fuzzy, get out a microscope – or, better yet, switch to curling.

According to Level5 chief executive officer David Kincaid, the survey was conducted not for the benefit of the league but as a tool that might be sold to the multiple corporate sponsors of professional hockey, in order to show what they need to tap into with hockey fans if they hope to regain their former good standing.

It will not be easy.

"We found damage at levels we have not seen," Kincaid says. "It's quite alarming, really.

"If anyone thinks that the lockout can end and everyone will come back to Happy Valley, it ain't going to happen."

The company's methodology varies considerably from public opinion surveys. Level5 claims to have mastered its technique through four years of pilot testing involving 30,000 intensive interviews, all geared at determining what basis a consumer has for choosing a particular brand. Obviously, such matters and price and availability play a role, but Level5 maintains the relationship is 50-per-cent emotional.

"The product is part of the person's identity," says Kincaid, who previously worked in marketing for Labatt Breweries of Canada and was a founding member of Corus Entertainment Inc.

Following the interviews – in the case of hockey, 1,066 people were surveyed – computer programs produce emotional maps called the "emotisphere" that illustrates the good feelings and bad feelings concerning a product.

The maps are divided, pie-like, into eight colour zones – red (fun), yellow (interest), orange (inspirational), brown (knowledgeable), green (trustworthiness), grey (satisfaction), blue (nurturing) and purple (friendliness) – and the farther a core emotion drifts from the centre the greater the concern.

A near-perfect emotisphere would be the Walt Disney Co. brand, the centre almost entirely red and yellow, the only outer concern a slight boredom even among those who generally like and admire Disney.

A disastrous map would be the one Level5 created following the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. It was the worst the company had seen – until it got around to the NHL this month.

The first surprise researchers found was passion for the national winter sport has slipped. One-third of Canadians polled consider themselves "passionate" about hockey, one-third is neutral on the topic and one-third has no interest at all.

"It surprised us," Kincaid says. "If we had done this study 10 years ago, 20 years ago, we would have seen half of Canadians or more say they were passionate about the game."

They found a lot of males have slipped into "neutrality" about the game – are now bored with hockey talk and feel they no longer relate to the game. Football – both CFL and NFL – is on the rise among those fans, who continue to be interested in sports.

"It's not a sacred relationship with hockey," says Behzad Ghotb, who led the analysis for Level5.

When they mapped out those who described themselves as passionate hockey fans, researchers found some core red and yellow feelings, but at the same time significant unhappiness, disappointment, confusion, irritation and frustration.

A great many feel "cheated" by the lockout.

As for neutral fans, the study found no red at all. On the outer edges, where brands don't wish to be found, the poll found dislike and, tellingly, boredom with NHL hockey.

The emotionally-charged red showed up in the final third, those who described themselves as non-passionate fans of little or no interest. However, the red was in the outer edges of the charts, indicating a significant and strong emotion: disgust.

"Hate can come from love," Ghotb says. "Anger comes from hurt."

From a branding point of view, NHL hockey and its multiple corporate sponsors are facing a huge hurdle, Kincaid says. The passionate fans are angry, the neutral fans turned off and bored, the mostly non-fans – the people hockey needs to attract if it hopes to grow – disgusted.

"Think what this means to the sponsors of hockey," Kincaid says. "For almost one-third of Canadians, you are wasting your time on them. You've lost them. They are not going to become even 'neutral.'"

As for those who do care about the game and still feel cheated, Kincaid says anyone who believes all the NHL has to do is come back and all will go back to as it was should think again.

"It's about damage control with these people," he says, "not about action on the ice."

Interact with The Globe