As former president and CEO of the Cleveland Browns--a hapless football team in one of America’s unluckiest sports cities--John Collins knows that fans are a fickle bunch. But to the National Football League, the Browns' annual disappointments never matter all that much, at least in this sense: If (and when) the Browns miss the playoffs, locals still watch football games, and still plan a Super Bowl party. That’s just how NFL fans are.
In 2006, following 15 years in NFL management, Collins was hired away from Cleveland to become COO of the National Hockey League, where he found a very different kind of fan. “Their behavior was much more tied to the favorite team,” he says. “And in the moments when you felt like they should be a hockey fan, you know, that’s during the Stanley cup playoffs. But that wasn’t really the kind of behavior we were seeing. It was more like, if you’re a Rangers fan and the Rangers aren’t in the playoffs, lights were off and you’re a Yankees fan.”
Collins was hired at a time of deep trouble for the NHL. It had recently emerged from a lockout that cancelled the 2004-2005 season, national interest had waned, and advertisers were lukewarm. The entire NHL playoffs weren’t even on national television.
So Collins began by reflecting on the lessons he’d taken from the NFL, arguably the nation’s most media-savvy league.
Five years later, on the eve of this season’s Winter Classic , the NHL revenues have grown from $2 billion to $3 billion. (Though, that also includes individual team revenue. The NHL says league-centric revenue-sponsorships, products, and so on--has grown 147%, though it won’t release an actual revenue figure.) And the big game on January 2--Flyers vs. Rangers, outdoors in the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park--is a potent symbol of just how much the NHL has changed its strategy. Collins, often credited as the architect of the new NHL, tells Fast Company how it came together.
1. Create big events that reach beyond local coverage.
It sounds almost stupid to say, but here goes: Hockey fans are a self-selecting group who all (wait for it) love hockey. But the NHL needs more than these puckheads, and it had no way to reach beyond them. “All our marketing assets, all our communication assets, were inside our games,” Collins says. “They were inside our arena, inside regional and national telecasts. We had no ability to break out beyond that and capture that casual, much broader sports fan environment.”
Excitement needed to build at a national scale, to feed off events that were larger than average games, things that would gin up coverage and activate fan interest. So the NHL went on a branding spree: It began seasons with Face-Off, a live festival. It bought a float at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. And perhaps most importantly, it launched the Winter Classic.
Collins says when he began at the NHL, he looked up at the walls and saw a photo of an outdoor hockey game in a football stadium. “What’s that?” he asked. He was told it was the Heritage Classic, a 2003 game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Canadiens.
“So I say, OK, why haven’t we done that again?” he says. “And then you start to hear all the reasons why you can’t do it.” The NHL has to choose a game from the regular season schedule that it wants to promote in the Winter Classic and pay the home team for all the revenue it would have earned to have hosted that game. It has to coordinate with a large venue such as a football or baseball stadium, and then sell tickets in venues that hold upwards of triple the capacity of hockey arenas.
But in 2007, NBC Sports lost the Gator Bowl, and was looking for a way to fill that start-of-the-year spot. Holiday sports have worked extremely well for other leagues--the Thanksgiving Day NFL games and Christmas Day NBA games are both gather-the-family (or more likely, avoid-the-family) traditions. And in an outdoor hockey game, the NHL had the opportunity to remind fans of its heritage as an outdoor sport played by anyone with a frozen lake, a few sticks, and something to slap around.
The first Winter Classic was held in 2008 in front of a sell-out crowd of 71,217. Last year’s game drew 4.5 million U.S. viewers, the most-viewed regular season game in 36 years. In those numbers, Collins sees fans tuning in for a hockey event, not just for the teams playing. Sponsors are biting (Bridgestone is the title sponsor), throwback jerseys worn during the game become best-selling merch, and the NHL now builds more events around this one, such as a sold-out alumni game.
2. Make hockey and its players more accessible.
Name hockey's household names: Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Sidney Crosby, and, um. There are a few more, right? This isn’t necessarily a reflection on the NHL’s marketing; hockey is traditionally a more private culture, with fewer players willing to become personalities. But sports are built on storylines, and stories need characters. So the NHL is putting more players in front of the camera both in commercials, and by making them more identifiable during games.
Last year, the NHL signed a deal with HBO’s 24/7, a documentary series that follows athletes preparing for a big game. To encourage teams to open their doors to such scrutiny, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman floated a policy that isn’t official but is very much understood: If a team wants to be in the Winter Classic, it has to do the HBO show.
The show is now a part of the NHL’s Winter Classic tradition. To Collins, though, the payoff wasn’t just in PR. In 2010, the NHL was gearing up for a new broadcast agreement--one it desperately needed. It had only 77 games broadcast between NBC and Versus, and only about half of the first two rounds of the playoffs were nationally broadcast. Meanwhile, NFL games are carried on CBS, FOX, NBC, and ESPN, including every playoff game. There was a lot of growth to be had.
“It was in many ways looking to set up the U.S. television agreements,” he says. “HBO does spend a lot of money on production, but also on promotion. They do it really well. They pushed our message far beyond that core hockey fan audience.”
The NHL needed to make its case before heading to the negotiation table.
3. Make hockey more advertiser-friendly.
The NHL reaches an attractive demographic: mostly men between the ages of 18 and 49, with an average household income of $101,680--higher than the NBA, NFL, or MLB, according to the NHL. But the league was reaching those people in fractured ways--a little TV here, some live events there. “When we talked to the media agencies and marketing companies, it’s not that they didn’t value the NHL demo, it’s just that they didn’t know how to spend money on it,” Collins says. “The league needed to articulate in a pretty clear way what we were going to do.”
This is why, as Collins says, the NHL had to start thinking of itself “not as a licensing company, but as a media company that wants to connect to the fan.” It launched its own TV network, revamped NHL.com  with an emphasis on video highlights (with advertiser-friendly placements), and created the subscription-based GameCenter Live  (scroll down to the bottom of this article for a chance to win a subscription) for fans to watch games on a computer or mobile device.
Then there’s the international fanbase. About a quarter of NHL players are from Europe, but the NHL wasn’t connecting with fans there. It had simply licensed its games to ESPN America, a network package available internationally that includes everything from MLB to NASCAR. If, say, an Austrian fan of the Sabres’ Thomas Vanek just wants to watch Buffalo games, paying for that big network is a raw deal.
“So we went country by country, identifying and ultimately trying to do a deal with the best media company in that country,” Collins says. “We said we’d provide not just regular season games, but native language versions of NHL.com, player sites in native language.” All the league’s apps, including GameCenter LIVE, would also be available in those countries.
By showing that it could reach fans in a more strategic way, "advertisers began to find a path toward spending money,” Collins says.
4. Expand hockey’s reach.
With all that advertiser interest, Collins was ready for the bargaining table. In April, the NHL scored its big prize: A 10-year deal with NBC that includes broadcasting 100 regular season games and every playoff game. Now NBC is promoting hockey within its other sports coverage, accomplishing what the NHL had long sought--a way to put its action in front of all sports fans.
The NHL’s rising profile has been positive in every way but one: Increased visibility has corresponded to increasing scrutiny on the health of its players, and how concussions and a culture of fighting are putting lives at risk. One of its biggest stars, Pittsburg’s Sidney Crosby, has spent about a year on the injured list for concussion-like symptoms. And an extensive New York Times series  examined the life and recent death of NHL player Derek Boogaard, a designated brawler who died of an accidental prescription drug and alcohol overdose while recovering from a concussion.
Collins doesn’t consider himself a spokesman on the matter. (“I’m more the business guy, so I’ll defer to other people who, if you really want to get into it, are more qualified.”) But he seems to hope that the NHL’s newly strengthened media network will help communicate the league’s responses--setting up a commission to study player safety, modifying rules to protect players from hits to the head, and others.
As the NHL builds its message machine, Collins aspires to further improve hockey’s image--not just as a safe sport, but as a fun one, a pastime worth returning to. "We feel like the sport...is bigger than the business, and the focus on creating a national halo can definitely lift the sport to another level. That’s what we felt was missing," says Collins. "We’re not finished by any stretch.”
Want more hockey? The NHL is giving away a yearlong subscription to GameCenter LIVE  to one lucky Fast Company reader. Tweet author Jason Feifer @heyfeifer  with your prediction for the final score of the Winter Classic. The first person with the correct guess (or if nobody nails it, the closest guess) wins.
[Image: Flickr user clydeorama ]