Every sport has a superstar. Michael Jordan broke a lot of barriers and set the bar high in the 90’s. Though Muhammad Ali might be the most famous American athlete ever, from a marketing standpoint, Jordan was the guy. The brands he represented are the standard bearers in their industry, especially Nike and Gatorade. Several shoe companies went to Jordan and his team to pitch why he should be their spokesman, Nike won. Nike won in more ways than that, the Swoosh is one of the most recognized symbols on the planet along with the arch of McDonald’s and of course Coca-Cola. MJ also had a great ad campaign with McDonald’s and to a lesser extent, Hanes. Michael Jordan was larger than life and made it possible for athletes to make money off of their persona and super stardom away from the court.
The latest era now has LeBron James as the biggest star. Sure we got Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Chris Paul, and a few others, but nobody touches LeBron. Tom Brady is probably too pretty and not down to earth enough for most Americans to connect to. Plus, we hate the Patriots. Peyton seems like a regular guy that pokes fun at himself and has charisma. Charisma is huge in marketing and fame. Look at Ali, Jordan, and LeBron. Heck, look at John Cena or Connor McGregor. Household names even if you don’t watch MMA or the WWE. Their charisma makes you stop and take notice, which is great if you want to sell people things.
The NBA does a great job of marketing. Look at how many Golden State Warriors jerseys you see worn by adolescent boys in the Midwest. The former land of Michael Jordan now belongs to Steph Curry. A talented, clean-cut guy that even the most conservative parent have no issue with. Basketball jerseys are not comfortable or practical but you seem them everywhere. Because of the NBA, marketing, and they sell their stars really really well.
The NFL is the king of jerseys and marketing. You can take a trip to a nice resort in Mexico and see Green Bay Packers jerseys worn by the locals. Green Bay is about as far away from paradise as you can get, but the Packers have branded their blue-collar, small-town image and sold it to all parts of the globe. Peyton Manning has sold you Papa Johns and now Nationwide Insurance. That damn jingle is in your head right now. Cam Newton showed the sports world “the dab” and now millions of kids do it, every day. It looks like you are sneezing into your elbow while doing part of the YMCA but it’s a huge hit. The QB for the CAROLINA PANTHERS has caused kids in Nebraska and Kansas to do the dab. Then again Cam’s first few seasons in the league he had a huge smile on his face and looked like he was having fun playing football. People can identify with that. “He’s having fun, I would have fun, I like that guy.” That’s how you market yourself and get people to buy your jersey in Terre Haute, Indiana.
MLB had this in the 90’s with Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. They had the villain in Bonds but the Sosa and McGwire show was so good, people ignored the fact we all knew they were on steroids. MLB has tried to create superstars since then but it hasn’t always clicked. It seems to still be regional as most teams are regional. Bryce Harper and Buster Posey have been pushed a bit, but nobody outside of their fan bases seem to buy it up. Unless there is a chance those guys could come to their team. MLB (and mostly ESPN) seem to be eager to push Aaron Judge as the next demi-god of MLB. The danger with the Yankees is the same as it is with the Patriots. People get tired of it. People get jealous. The Cubs have Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant and the Bryzzo brand. Both guys are great at the game, giant smiles, and an incredible bromance. Heck, Kris Bryant was signed as model before he ever faced a MLB pitch. The Cubs were the “lovable losers” for over a century until Bryzzo changed that. They seem like likely candidates for MLB to market but even then, they are nowhere near the level of Peyton Manning or LeBron James.
This is the issue with the NHL. They don’t market their players well enough, if at all. They have Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, and Alexander Ovechkin. But none of them are close to the Wayne Gretzky level. Everyone knew who Gretzky was and he was marketable. The NHL really hasn’t had anyone truly marketable since then. For some reason they thought that Nicklas Backstrom would be a great marketing guy. Even die-hard hockey fans wouldn’t hitch their wagon to Backstrom. Good player, but, meh. The NHL should have struck while the TJ Oshie iron was hot but, didn’t. The NHL being forward thinking has been an issue that has kept the sport from growing. Case and point, Kid Rock at an All-Star game in Florida. Detroit would have made sense but Florida? Kid Rock? That’s missing on an empty net.
In hockey, it is tougher to market individual players because of the nature of the sport. Changes happen on the fly, and the action never stops. In the MLB you have players in the dugout and players in the field standing and sitting around. You get to know their face because their is time for a close-up between every pitch. The NBA only has 5 guys on the floor for each team at a time and from a cameraman perspective, it’s easy to frame them up. Once again, you recognize the face of most of the players. The NFL, same thing, you have guys on the sidelines waiting around and you also have 8 camera angle replays after every single play. You also usually have a studio produced head shot of the player they flash up as a graphic before the replay or after a big play. You can do this when you have a lot of downtime in a sport. It hides the fact that the action stops, a lot. The actual plays in an NFL game are a few seconds. But you never notice this because you are bombarded with replay and analysis on every single play in every single game that you don’t even notice it. A 2nd and 8 run up the gut becomes exciting with the right angle and description. Hockey, does not have the luxury of the down time because the action only stops if the puck goes out of play, a goal is scored, a goalie freezes the puck or if off sides or a penalty is called. Other than that, constant action, and guys coming on and off the ice. It’s a hard game to shoot from a video stand point but HD cameras and Go-Pros have made it infinitely easier than when Fox floated the highlighted puck idea, 20 years ago.
Additionally, for the most part, hockey players are pretty quiet guys. They go about their business and play the game. They do post game interviews but nobody really shines a light on themselves. While other sports say “LOOK AT ME!” after every play, the NHL does not. There is a “LOOK AT ME” moment after every play in the NFL, especially a sack, touchdown, or first down. There are dozens of first downs in every football game but the WR has to make the first down motion. Why? It looks cool. It’s fun. Hockey, there might be a celly (goal celebration) but if you take it too far, you are going end up on your ass or face first in the boards the next shift. Hockey’s code is that it’s not about you, it’s about the team. If you listen to post game interviews in the NHL, you hear the word “we” a lot more than “me or I.” It’s just the mentality of the sport. It’s ingrained in players from a young age. So, you have NHL players that don’t even want attention. They don’t want to market themselves, or, they don’t have the charisma. Sidney Crosby is incredibly talented but he doesn’t have that Peyton Manning goofiness that people can identify with. He doesn’t have It.
One guy in the NHL does. More than any other player. PK Subban. He loves to give a proper and emphatic “celly”. He wants you to know he’s out there on the ice doing his thing. He’s one of the few using social media to promote himself and his sport. He’s talented and fun to watch. He’s got the charisma, he’s got the talent, and he seems to be a great human being off the ice. His philanthropy is almost unparalleled. He committed to raise $10 million for a children’s hospital in Montreal where he played 6 full seasons.
In addition to donating to the hospital, PK helps disenfranchised youth meet with police officers and lets them go to a hockey game for free, food and drink included. It’s called the Blueline Buddies. He’s got a Facebook for his foundation as well. He’s funny, he’s intelligent, he’s thoughtful, he’s entertaining. He is the vehicle to put hockey into a lot of households, livelihoods, and minds that would otherwise have no clue what hockey was. He’s willing to help out those who need it. His own sport needs that help.
The NHL is currently pushing “Hockey is for Everyone”. It is meant to show that you can be a man, woman, boy, girl, undecided, straight, gay and love the game and play the game itself. It’s not just meant for a certain demographic, as has been a stigma. Just like soccer is around the globe, hockey can be played by and enjoyed by everyone. Every kid plays soccer or baseball or football or basketball or a combination of the those. They do it for the social aspect as much as the sporting aspect of it. There is no reason hockey should be left out because there is no reason you should be left out of hockey. It’s a sport, almost more than any other one, that you love even more if you try to play it. It’s a great sport and great workout. And there is a community that comes with it that not every sport has. Part of the “Hockey for Everyone” campaign is that there is this supportive culture that you won’t find somewhere else. But you need something more than a clever commercial or slogan, you need somebody to fuel that and embody that. PK is that guy.
“Hockey is for Everyone” also means it’s for different races. The NHL is largely based from Canadian, Russian, and European player from places like Scandanavia. This leads to the league being predominately white with sometimes very European names that are hard to spell or pronounce. That makes the marketing a difficult thing. Gabe Landeskog has the model looks of a Kris Bryant but with a name like Landeskog? People might think it’s a new Olympic sport or some new brand of beer. Good looking dude, hard to market name. One guy in the NHL actually is a model, and that’s Henrik Lundqvist. But he’s a goalie and where’s a mask and even hockey fans struggle spelling the name. He’s the Dan Marino of hockey. Good looking guy that can appeal to men and women, one of the best at his position to ever play the sport…that never won a title. Marino was the best quarterback to never win a Super Bowl, Lundqvist may never win a Stanley Cup but is the Patrick Roy of his generation.
(I could not find the current commercial campaign online so I’m using an ad I really enjoyed from the Calgary Flames. And I’m big big fan of Harnarayan Singh and the work he does. Singh was the “first Sikh to broadcast a game in English“. Signh can hopefully be a catalyst for bringing broadcasters from different cultures to hockey. Another part of the sport that needs a breath of fresh air. Look at how good the studio hosts of the NBA on TNT are. They make you want to watch even if you don’t care about the teams playing. The NHL needs guys that are appointment television like Shaq and Charles Barkley.)
Hockey needs to appeal to larger demographics and different ethnic backgrounds. There’s players like Brandon Yip or Scott Gomez from time to time but neither one was a superstar, and neither one had the marketability of a PK Subban. You want the best athletes to compete in any sport and athleticism isn’t reserved to one race more than another race. In order to draw in those different demographics, you have to have someone they identify with. Having someone who looks and acts different than everyone else, is a great place to start. It’s been rumored of years that Jay-Z wants to get into hockey, from an sports agency stand point. If there is anyone that understands marketing, it’s Jay-Z. His wife is Beyonce. You talk about branding power, Jay-Z and Beyonce reach levels that are unparalleled. The appeal to a broad spectrum of people over a wide variety of industries from music to television to film to fashion. If you want to grow a sport and promote a super-star, this is how you do it. Michael Jordan was in movies, video games, and Jordan is it’s own fashion line. That’s how you get into people closets and pocket books. PK Subban can be that guy. PK SHOULD be that guy. He’s already doing it in Canada, but he needs help to do it in America. PK does have a friendship with Canadian rapper Drake as well. Drake is hugely popular in America and is another in road for people to hop on the Subban bandwagon.
PK Subban has a persona. Most NHL players to be more like a Tom Brady and play it cool and be well, let’s face it bland. They occasionally post things on social media but about the only entertaining NHL Twitter accounts are run by the teams themselves. Very few players do much with it. Nail Yakupov post pictures of his dog and his countrymen from other teams, but even that is seldom compared to NBA, NFL, and MLB Players. We never get a taste of their personality. PK is completely different. Other than Brent Burns of the San Jose Sharks, there are few guys that have such a personality (and a unique instantly recognizable look). Look at the way he mugs for the camera. It’s very much like LeBron and Peyton. They just love the camera and act like kids without a care in the world.
But the superstar persona OFF the ice has to be matched ON the ice. PK can do that. He’s a big bruising defensemen that can also “dangle” (skate, finesse, carry the puck) and score. He hits guys hard which draws into the football and MMA crowds. But he also skates with ease and grace that appeals to the MLB fans. Hockey is an odd mix of violence, speed, skill, finest, and athleticism. PK check’s off every single one of those boxes. The more popular players in the league tend to be the forwards, the Crosby’s and Kane’s that slice a defense up like Barry Sanders running over a defense. It’s exciting to watch. Defensemen typically do not have such skill but occasionally you get one like PK or even Brent Burns of the Sharks. Burns could be a marketing machine as well. He looks like Chewbacca and Star Wars is owned by Disney and more popular than ever. The NHL SHOULD tap into that, but they probably won’t. They’re probably trying to get Smashmouth to play next year’s All-Star game.
— NHL (@NHL) January 28, 2018
PK was on the Daily Show recently to promote the All-Star game but you also got to see a peak of the type of human being this guy is. You can and should watch the video here, it is the third segment and about 6 minutes well worth your time. How can you not cheer for a guy like that. As a league, how can you not say, we need to promote this guy? Check the tweet above. That’s a guy you can use to reach broader audiences. We want MORE of that. They did a ton of behind the scenes videos and put them on the NHL Twitter feed. They were a lot fun. That’s how you grow a sport. That’s how you create superstars. That’s how you sell jerseys and merchandise. (Scroll down to the 27th of January and check out the videos)
Oh, and I forgot to mention, PK has already built his own brand. He’s built his own mini empire that’s perfect for America. He has that same charisma that LeBron has. He has an add where he dressed up as an old man. Very LeBron like. There was video a few years ago where he pretended to be new at hockey and joined a beer league team. Oh and PK also does Gatorade ads. Jordan, LeBron, PK.
The WWE is terrific at seizing opportunity and pouncing on pop culture. One of their Tag Team Champions call themselves “The Bar” which is blatantly ripped off from the Ford Truck commercials. (Editors note: voiced by rabid hockey fan Denis Leary) They pounced on Ronda Rousey when she was at her height of fame with UFC and she even appeared at a Wrestlemania with the Rock. She appeared again at the Royal Rumble and is a full time member of the WWE now. Vince McMahon and the WWE seized the moment and capitalized on it. The NHL fails to do this time and time again. PK Subban was JUST on the Daily Show. People in Canada know how great this guys is. How talented and entertaining he is. The NHL needs to move this south of the (Canadian) border. They need to promote him in main stream media. They need to put his face out there like every other sport does with their superstars. There has never been anyone like PK Subban in the NHL. He is the total package. He’s funny, he’s talented, he’s personable, and he’s really good at his sport. He can do something goofy off the cuff or sit down for a serious conversation. This is THE guy that hockey has been waiting for. Don’t let him pass you by while you run another ad with Backstrom shooting pucks and making a GEICO logo out of ice. Backstrom is boring. PK is not. Hockey has all the elements that sports fans want but they don’t understand the rules and don’t know any of the super starts. PK can break down any barrier. He’s not afraid to put his face out there in the media nor is he afraid to put his body on the line to help his team win. You don’t get guys like this very often, if at all. The NHL needs to move on marketing this guy in every way possible. He’s already doing most of the heavy lifting himself. Just give him the little push to put him over the top. They failed to cash in on the Chance the Rapper Saturday Night Live skit. They can’t afford to lose another opportunity. With the NFL losing popularity, the other sports need to take notice. They need to position themselves to be the next option for people tired of NFL. And those that love football, the Super Bowl just happened and they have all sorts of free time to go to whatever sport catches their attention. The NHL has everything the NFL does, and more. Let PK Subban become your Peyton Manning and then everyone will be craving Timmy Horton’s Coffee instead of pizza.