Hockey plans cooling

Just a few short months after the cancellation of the Major League Baseball season sent advertisers scrambling to rethink their ad strategies, a strike of the National Hockey League threatens to turn their world upside-down again.Advertisers who were planning on using...

Just a few short months after the cancellation of the Major League Baseball season sent advertisers scrambling to rethink their ad strategies, a strike of the National Hockey League threatens to turn their world upside-down again.

Advertisers who were planning on using hockey as a vehicle are being forced to contemplate the worst-case scenario and develop contingency plans; plans that, for the most part, they are unwilling to talk about before a lockout or strike becomes a reality.

‘I’m not going to speculate,’ says Stew Low, director of Public Relations at General Motors Co. of Canada.

‘Let’s just wait and see,’ he says.

‘I’m not going to jump the gun until we have a solid set of circumstances.’

Ford Motor Co. of Canada was equally reticent to concede that the threatened hockey walkout would harm advertising.

‘We’ll talk about contingency plans when the time comes,’ said Jim Hartford, Ford’s senior manager of public affairs.

Other advertisers are not just tight-lipped, they are choosing not to deal with the implications.

‘We haven’t discussed it that much,’ says Pat McLaughlin, manager of advertising for London Life Insurance. ‘We’re still dealing with the baseball strike.

Equally-watched shows

‘During that, we substituted on some equally watched shows,’ McLaughlin says. ‘I expect that’s what we’ll do with hockey.’

The advertising of Gillette Canada, which has obvious interest in the demographics of the hockey watching consumer (about 65% male, most of whom are in the 25-54 age bracket) would be damaged by an advertising strike, but not too seriously.

‘If [the replacement programming] wasn’t sports, and caused an imbalance in our mix of regular programming and sports, we would probably ask for a credit,’ says Ken Belland, vice-president account director of ad agency bbdo.

‘But, for us, hockey is just part of a larger package,’ Belland says. ‘It’s not looked on as a prime vehicle in which to advertise.’

The networks that carry nhl games are obviously nervous.

Hockey Night in Canada provides the cbc’s largest audience, according to Glenn Wert, director of marketing for the cbc.

Wert says particularly popular games, like those between Montreal and Toronto, can attract an audience of up to two million.

This year was the first for the six-hour double-header, a sizable hole in programming to fill once a week.

‘As close as possible’

‘We’re trying to acquire programming that comes as close as possible to meeting the audience expectations [the advertisers] have for hockey,’ Wert says.

‘It’s a very difficult time for them,’ he says. ‘It’s a crucial time of the year.’

Wert says some of the advertisers will accept their alternative programming, which on the first night would include the movies Homeward Bound and Splash, and some would wait and see.

For TSN The Sports Network, scheduled to show 35 regular season games and the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the possibility of a strike is more crucial after having the baseball season cut short.

‘We’d be losing our No. 1 property,’ says Rick Brace, vice-president of programming with tsn.

Brace says tsn has made arrangements to replace hockey with boxing title bouts, at least for the month of October, in the event of a strike.

Brace is optimistic the loss of hockey would not mean a mass migration of advertisers away from his channel.

‘If baseball was any indication, only one advertiser found that their plans couldn’t be met with our replacement programming, and we managed to keep at least some of the money from the other advertisers,’ he says.

Peter Swain, president of Media Buying Services, thinks that although the baseball strike and the threat of a similar set of circumstances in hockey, may make advertisers ‘raise their eyebrows a little’ when next considering putting a very sizable portion of their communications budget into sports advertising, it will not alter the industry dramatically.

‘It’s part of business’

‘It may be a frustration, but I think there’s a sense that from time to time there are disruptions, whether in sports vehicles or in The Globe and Mail,’ Swain says. ‘It’s part of the business.’

Regardless, Swain figures the auto sector, a heavy media user this time of year, will be particularly sensitive to a hockey strike.

Sunni Boot, managing director of Optimedia, says that although a strike is a nightmare for the media buying industry, a disruption in the hockey season would not be a disaster for most advertisers unless it affects the playoffs.

‘During the regular season, there are [advertising] alternatives,’ Boot says. ‘Playoffs, however, are a viewing event. People go out of their way to watch this. It just can’t be replaced.’

Boot does concede advertisers that depend heavily on hockey will be harmed either way.

‘When the backbone of your advertising is eliminated, it’s a hardship,’ she says.