NHL Goes Into Overtime for New Year’s Classic Sponsors

Sponsorships are pervasive in sports, so it’s no surprise the National Hockey League has made its New Year’s Day Winter Classic game fully accessible to advertisers. Custom online integrations for Winter Classic sponsors like Bridgestone and Verizon Wireless, along with a just-launched effort by the U.S. Army, exemplify the type of work the league is doing to woo advertisers to its digital content and hockey in general.

Though a variety of advertisers are associated with this year’s Winter Classic, tire brand Bridgestone gets serious traction through its title sponsorship of the Winter Classic video channel on NHL.com. The company is also sponsoring content like a fan guide to the annual game and a Webcam displaying footage of Fenway Park as it morphs from baseball field to Winter Classic ice rink.

The 2010 Winter Classic — the third installment of a new tradition featuring an outdoor NHL game reminiscent of old timey pond hockey — will pit the Boston Bruins against the Philadelphia Flyers on the home field of baseball’s Boston Red Sox. The last two classics were held on the home turfs of the Buffalo Bills and Chicago Cubs.

“This is an opportunity for the league to really express itself as an innovative entertainment company,” suggested Larry Gelfand, SVP Media Sales at NHL.

Bridgestone display ads accompany pre-roll spots running before video content related to the game, such as daily reports and time-lapsed footage showing construction of the rink atop the baseball diamond. In addition to Bridgestone, brands including Verizon Wireless and Compuware are getting special treatment in Classic content. A countdown clock marking the days, hours, minutes, and seconds until the New Year’s Day game commences is sponsored by Verizon Wireless, while software brand Compuware is sponsoring a Winter Classic photo gallery on NHL.com. Verizon is also the official mobile partner of the NHL.

The NHL holds a unique place in the sports world, attracting a niche audience of diehard fans the league says are younger, more affluent, and more tech savvy than fans of other sports. According to Gelfand, they tend to be more affluent because many fans come from families in which kids play hockey, which requires more expensive equipment than other sports.

In an effort to better serve the typically loyal hockey enthusiast, the NHL has built up its digital coverage of the sport, which often gets lost among other more popular sports online and on TV, particularly during the National Football League-dominated winter. The NHL launched redesigned versions of NHL.com and all 30 team sites at the start of this season in October, with help from AKQA. It also partners with Yahoo Sports for Fantasy Hockey, and distributes video content on its official YouTube channel as part of an ad revenue-sharing deal signed in 2006.

The NHL clearly values its content and its ability to attract dedicated fans who might also translate their loyalty to hockey’s sponsors. One indication: NHL ceased partnerships with ad networks in January 2008, and now sells all ad inventory on NHL.com and all 30 team sites direct. Two reps work in New York under Gelfand, who started with NHL in October 2007. The company has a similar sales team setup in Toronto. Part of Gelfand’s early strategy involved visiting digital agencies to preach the positives of sponsoring hockey’s digital content. “It’s a growth story,” he said.

Other advertisers running ads or custom integrations in conjunction with the Winter Classic include game maker EA, Geico, Honda, and trading card company Upper Deck. McDonald’s and Bud Light are among sponsors represented on the site as “Proud Partners” with only logos shown alongside articles about the upcoming game.

“It’s more a function of the fact that they’re official partners of the National Hockey League,” said Gelfand, adding that some of the advertisers don’t necessarily have new ad creative to warrant a major sponsorship, but still want to have a presence. “They don’t want to be dark or run generic banners that have no value,” he said.

Display ads for the U.S. Army can also be seen in Classic content online, part of a newly-continued partnership between the NHL and the Army. The latest campaign, launched yesterday, involves a series of Web videos spotlighting “Hockey’s Finest,” current and retired players that exhibit values celebrated by the Army such as loyalty, duty, respect, and selfless service. At the Winter Classic, an Army General will participate in the ceremonial puck drop, during which an NBC sportscaster will tell TV viewers to check out Hockey’s Finest on NHL.com. The videos will be repurposed for NHL’s TV network, and syndicated on YouTube, iTunes, and Facebook.

Using its studios in New York, NHL produced a similar video series for boot brand Timberland, which sponsored an eight-week “Tough Guys of the NHL” series starting in October.

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