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NHL shakes up weekend schedule to increase European fanbase and revenues

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN - NOVEMBER 10: General view ahead of the 2017 SAP NHL Global Series match between Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche at Ericsson Globe on November 10, 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)

  • Fifty games moved to afternoons so they can be broadcast in primetime on continent
  • Approximately 30 per cent of NHL players come from overseas
  • Earlier start times give teams more opportunity to engage with younger audience

The National Hockey League is looking to increase its European fanbase and revenue streams by scheduling nearly 50 matches this season in primetime for the continent.

Approximately 30 per cent of NHL players come from Europe, with the majority coming from the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden. The NHL believes that showcasing its international stars to their home audiences year-round in primetime will increase interest in its teams and the league overall, and ultimately lead to commercial rewards such as larger international TV rights fees.

The ‘NHL European Game of the Week’ – as it is marketed overseas – begins at 1pm Eastern Time every Saturday, which equates to 7pm Central European Time. From early December, Sunday games starting at 12.30pm ET, or 6.30pm CET, will be added to the schedule.

Most NHL games begin at 7pm ET, which makes it extremely difficult for even the most dedicated European fans to follow due to the time difference.

NHL teams have regularly staged exhibition games in Europe since the mid-1970s to engage with fans in established ice hockey-playing nations and to try to attract more global sponsors. This initiative was expanded with the launch of NHL Premiere in 2007, when the league opened its regular season in Europe for the first time.

NHL Premiere continued until 2011 but was cancelled the following year due to uncertainty over the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which led to a lockout in the 2012-13 season. A six-year hiatus ended with the launch of the NHL Global Series in 2017, which featured two regular-season games in Stockholm. This year’s event was expanded to three regular-season games and two exhibition matches against local teams. A European tour next year has already been confirmed.

To maintain momentum in its renewed international push, the NHL turned to its broadcasting efforts, having received positive feedback from European networks about the popularity of games scheduled in primetime slots on the continent.

A successful pilot was held last year when the New Jersey Devils’ 2017-18 regular-season opener was moved from 7pm ET to 2pm to allow a Swiss audience to watch the team’s number one draft pick Nico Hischier play in primetime. The game’s Swiss TV ratings were approximately four times higher than NHL matches traditionally broadcast in early mornings in the country.

After logistical negotiations between the NHL scheduling department, the 31 teams and international broadcast partners, the ‘European Game of the Week’ initiative was launched on October 6, with the regular-season game between the Devils and Edmonton Oilers in Gothenburg.

“These are all attempts to strengthen our fanbase in Europe,” Jaka Lednik, the NHL group vice-president of international strategy, tells SportBusiness. “We can’t play games every week in Europe and one of the avenues to grow our fanbase in Europe is the broadcast angle.

“Everything we’ve heard [anecdotally] means we can grow our fanbase in Europe because of this and we hope that will be good for our broadcast partners – they’ll get a bigger viewership and we’ll get more fans and that might mean more financials down the road for both of us…broadcast rights, sponsorship deals. It’s all about growing the fanbase and then other things will come out of it.”

Continued growth of its popularity in Europe could ultimately lead to the NHL becoming the first US major league to set up a team, or even an entire division of teams, in the continent.

Both NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHL Players Association executive director Donald Fehr believe European expansion is “inevitable”, though there are logistical obstacles to overcome including travel concerns for players, appropriate ticket pricing, stadium availability and striking deals with professional leagues and teams in planned destination cities.

“I think it would be a real positive statement to create the first truly ‘trans-ocean league’,” Fehr said in November. “I think it would be an extraordinary achievement for everybody. Whether it will happen in my tenure remains to be seen, but hopefully sooner or later it will happen.”

(Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)

Creating a ‘destination viewing experience’
A key part of the ‘European Game of the Week’ initiative was establishing consistency in weekend afternoon scheduling for the first time so overseas fans would know exactly when games were going to be broadcast.

“If you look back at our schedule last year, we’d have weekends where we’d have some games one week, no games the next week, or they might start at 1pm ET one week and 2pm or 3pm the next week,” says Lednik. “Part of our aim was to try to create them at a consistent time so we could educate fans in Europe that, say, at 7pm in Sweden there will be a game every Saturday.”

It is hoped this move will create what Lednik describes as a “destination viewing experience” every weekend. “That is much more common in European sports. For example, with the Premier League, you know when games are going to be shown because it’s a consistent schedule that they have week in and week out,” he says.

The NHL’s European broadcasters were extremely keen to have more primetime matches. But the networks – including the pan-Nordic Viasat Hockey and Nova Sport, which cover the Czech Republic and Slovakia – requested these games be made available on both Saturdays and Sundays to give them some flexibility.

“We had to recognise that our broadcast partners have different rights on their channels, for example soccer and other US sports,” says Lednik. “We couldn’t just say, it’s only Saturday and it’s only this time because some of our broadcast partners might find that more difficult. So if a broadcast partner struggles with Saturdays, then they can choose Sundays, and vice-versa. It’s been a very collaborative model with our broadcast partners. The 50 (number of games) came out of building flexibility into the schedule.”

To help build up a sense of occasion and help drive publicity, the NHL is promoting the games on its local-language websites – in Czech, Finnish, French, German, Russian, Slovak and Swedish – with geo-targeted advertising banners and video content. To help create this content, all teams who take part in the European Game of the Week are asked around 10 days in advance to put together interviews and feature clips of players in their native languages that can be also used by European broadcast partners on linear TV or on social media.

“They are an extra way of building excitement ahead of the game…we are driving people to those broadcasters as much as we can,” says Lednik.

The NHL has not received any viewing figures yet regarding the European Game of the Week but Lednik has received evidence that it has proven an early success.

“First of all, we have the vast majority of our European broadcasters taking part in this programme now so the take-up has been very good,” he says. “We also just had a set of feedback calls with seven or eight of those broadcasters and we got an overwhelmingly positive response.

“I think it’s going to take us a while longer to educate fans that they can tune in at a particular time every week, but over the course of the season we’ll get there. The anecdotal evidence gives me a lot of faith that we’re going in the right direction.”

The logo of the two teams is projected on the arena ahead of the 2017 SAP NHL Global Series match between Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche at Ericsson Globe on November 10, 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden (Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)

Convincing NHL teams to get on board
In order to significantly change the weekend schedule, Lednik admits there was a “process” to convince the 31 NHL teams that this would be a beneficial move for them.

“Our schedule is built up of the availabilities and preferences of when they want to play games,” Lednik says. “We had to have conversations like: ‘Are you prepared to play games on Saturday afternoons?’. We laid out the logic behind it and also presented a bit around what it would do from a financial and fanbase perspective as well. I would say the clubs have really got on board around this.”

One of the commercial reasons that helped persuade the teams to take part was the increased opportunity to appeal to younger audiences. “We looked into ticketing, concessions, merchandise, all these types of things…to make sure we were not over-burdening them with this request,” says Lednik.

“For some teams, afternoon games make a lot of sense – it’s a time when you can get a lot of families in, the next generation of fans, it is a lot easier than a 7pm game. This can be a win-win for teams to grow their presence in Europe and potentially open them up to new fanbases in North America as well.”

Many teams, though, were understandably reluctant for their matches to go head-to-head with NFL Sunday afternoons games, which have averaged 17.3 million and 15.7 million viewers on Fox and CBS respectively in 2018.

A compromise was agreed that these games would be added to the schedule from mid-December, towards the end of the NFL regular season. “We’ve just tried to apply a bit of common sense at this,” says Lednik. “Saturdays throughout the season we can build a good schedule around and Sundays in the latter half of the season works for a lot of our clubs. If we had Sundays in the first half of the season, it would be a more difficult conversation.”

Due to the time difference, teams on the East Coast are always home sides for the European Game of the Week. In order to accommodate West Coast teams, who want to promote themselves overseas, the schedule was organised so they would be featured as visiting sides.

“What we’ve tried to do is make sure each club in the league is featured in at least one Game of the Week,” Lednik says. “We haven’t 100 per cent achieved that…but I think it’s 29 or 30 clubs we’ve got to at least one slot. We’re trying to bring as many teams as possible into this.”

(Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images)

Devils embrace initiative after pilot programme success
One team that quickly embraced the ‘European Game of the Week’ initiative were the Devils, following the success of their rescheduled season-opener last year.

The Devils have enjoyed a boost in family and group ticket sales on the back of their increase in weekend afternoon games this season. But the front office has had to work hard to ensure fans are aware of the change in start times.

“It all goes back to awareness, making people aware of the time change,” Hugh Weber, the president of Devils’ ownership group Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, tells us. “We have a whole team of people who think about how to promote it on social or [local broadcaster] MSG Network, the experience being a little bit different.

“With ticket sales, we find afternoon games are more attractive to a younger audience, people bringing their kids, groups, youth groups…so it’s given us an opportunity to target an audience of emerging fans that we’re engaging with. We’re a top-five league in group sales because we have 12 afternoon games.”

The Devils have had to change their concessions strategy to accommodate a younger demographic. “Because your audience is different and because people might not be drinking as much beer at 2pm as they would at 7pm, what are the different things you can provide?” Weber adds. “So we are looking to drive more family meals and less beer. All these things you have to methodically think through when you shift a game from 7pm to 2pm.”

The Devils toured Europe early this season as part of the Global Series, taking part in an exhibition game against SC Bern in Switzerland on October 1 followed by the regular-season game against the Oilers in Sweden five days later.

Weber believes the team’s promotional activities in Europe, both in person and now on primetime TV, will lead to short- and long-term commercial benefits.

“We see exposing the team abroad as an investment and one that’s not impeding commercialisation in the short term,” says Weber. “The long-term piece is fan engagement, such as buying merchandise or social engagement. We’ve seen our social numbers in countries like Sweden and Switzerland rise massively in the past few months because of the exposure we’ve had there.

“But the first wave of commercialisation in this strategy is partnerships. We did have some meetings with potential sponsors while we were in Europe. That is real, not just a [long-term] investment.”

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