Simply because no Canadian teams are left in the NHL playoffs doesn't mean that there isn't a hockey skirmish going on in the country. A controversial advertising campaign by Labatt Brewing Co. Ltd., called Playoff Payoff, has Molson Coors Brewing Co., the NHL's exclusive beer rights-holder in North America, fuming. It also has other members of the advertising community crying foul.
After a lengthy court battle, Labatt lost the North American NHL rights last year to Molson Coors, which is paying $375-million over seven years. That didn't stop Labatt from still trying to exploit hockey as a promotional tool here in Canada. In one of its more creative campaigns, Labatt staged the hockey flash-mob event when it surprised some beer-league hockey players in Mississauga by putting them in a Budweiser commercial. The commercial has attracted almost four million views on the Internet.
Fair enough. Making lemonade from a lemon. But when Labatt launched its Hockey Playoff Payoff: Hockey Tickets For Life promotion to coincide with the start of the NHL playoffs, some said the campaign was an ambush of rights-holder Molson Coors. In its promotion, Labatt promises a fan tickets to 20 games a year for 50 years to any Canadian hockey team in its home city. It doesn't specify tickets to which team, but it implies that NHL teams are included. Coming as the buy did at the start of the playoffs, Labatt is accused of trying to exploit the lucrative postseason marketing period when it doesn't have the rights.
Molson has cried foul, pointing out that some commercial buys are in NHL cities, implying you can win tickets to those teams. This brand protection is not dissimilar to efforts made by the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to root out any commercial references to the word Olympics or its logo by non-rights-holders before and during the 2010 Games. Or the infamous case of Dutch beer company Bavaria, which employed girls dressed in its branded orange colours in the stands of games at the soccer's World Cup in 2010 – even though another company held the rights.
Labatt has been vague about the details of how the tickets will be awarded. If you look carefully at the fine print it says the fan could win the cash equivalent of tickets for life, say about $250,000. "If the winner chooses hockey tickets for life, Labatt will do everything it can to facilitate that decision, including giving the winning fan the money to obtain the tickets," says a statement.
The fine print of the Labatt ad also acknowledges that "Budweiser is not an official sponsor of the National Hockey League and that the 'Playoff Payoff' contest isn't licensed or sponsored by, or otherwise associated with the NHL or its teams."
But those legalisms don't wash with Molson Coors, which insists that the ads piggy-back on its exclusive rights to the NHL.
The promotion also rankles others in the business. Brian Cooper, CEO and president of S&E Sponsorship Group Inc., thinks that Labatt has crossed an ethical line where, if successful, such tactics could diminish the value of exclusive brand rights and damage the industry overall.
Cooper, whose company does NHL sponsorships but has no connection to the Playoff Payoff fight, believes that Labatt's tack is dirty pool. "We admire what Labatt has done in fighting back since it lost the NHL national contract," Cooper told Usual Suspects on Thursday. "But this campaign is ambush marketing. Labatt is letting consumers fill in the blanks. It's giving away NHL tickets, therefore Budweiser must still the beer of the NHL."
Cooper says it's a crossroads for his business. "If we as an industry let this happen now, when will we stop it? If we don't check this ourselves, then who will?"
Which begs the question of what the NHL is doing to protect Molson's exclusivity? So far, the league has posted this message on its website, NHL.com, "We want our fans to know that the NHL has no affiliation with that promotion, and we can offer no assurances to our fans that the desired tickets will be available to the winner." Cooper and others in the industry want them to go farther.
Thursday the NHL declined a request for comment on the issue. But sources tell Usual Suspects that the league is waiting to see how Labatt tries to convert its promotion into actual NHL tickets before it acts. Should Labatt provide authentic NHL tickets, then the league may have the legal connection to act. It might be a different issue if Labatt gives the fan the equivalent money to buy whatever tickets the winner wants.
For now, says Cooper, Labatt is technically not in violation of infringing on the NHL's trademarks. "But in this case they have crossed the line. This is an ambush of the highest degree."
Props to TSN's Rod Black and Bob Errey. The pair expected to be hosts of pregame and intermissions of the world hockey championships on Thursday from TSN's Toronto studios. Then announcer Dave Randorf, who was to call the two games live from Sweden, was sidelined by illness. So Black and Errey called both games off monitors back in the Toronto studios. Might be the best save of the tournament.