Tradition is a word that resonates strongly with the National Hockey League (NHL). The second oldest of North America’s major sports leagues, the ice hockey competition’s history and culture have shaped its evolution over the last century.
Throughout its 32 pulsating arenas, where supporters embrace the full-blooded on-ice action, one thing that remains consistent is the NHL’s diehard fan culture. Since Heidi Browning arrived at the league in 2016 as its chief marketing officer, her goal has been to leverage social media and the evolving digital landscape to bring those traditions to both new and existing fans as the NHL seeks to keep pace with other major competitions such as the National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA).
So far the signs are promising. At the time of writing, the NHL boasts more than 16 million followers across its Twitter, Instagram and Facebook pages, while the league’s TikTok account has already attracted 1.6 million followers.
Meanwhile, in October, ESPN’s broadcast of the matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and reigning champions the Tampa Bay Lightning was the most-watched NHL season-opener in the league’s history, reaching an average audience of 984,000 and peaking at more than 1.1 million viewers.
Speaking to Gareth Capon, the chief executive of Grabyo, on day three of November’s SportsPro OTT Summit, Browning explained how the NHL has grown interest in the league since she joined the organisation. Browning not only discussed the league’s digital strategy, but also some of the fan engagement initiatives it developed during the pandemic and its aim of capturing the imagination of Gen Z fans.
Learning from the Power Players
One specific way the NHL is looking to engage with the next generation of fans is through its Power Players youth advisory board. Debuted in 2019 and now in its third season, the programme provides youngsters aged between 13 and 17 with a platform to voice their opinions on how the league’s digital content and marketing campaigns can be more relevant to their demographic.
Browning hails the project as a “gift that keeps on giving”, revealing that the idea was born out of a letter she received from an 11-year old girl and keen NHL fan, Sabrina Solomon, soon after being appointed as chief marketing officer five years ago. Impressed by her creativity, Browning invited Solomon to present some of her ideas to the league.
That meeting, attended by NHL staff from across different departments, would far exceed expectations.
“She came in with her mom, and she brought a whole PowerPoint deck filled with really great ideas,” Browning recalls. “In fact, many of those ideas we were already implementing, but she wasn’t aware of them. And for us, that was a huge ‘aha moment’.
“You’re out there marketing, marketing, marketing, and you think you’re connecting with everyone. And then to find out that this 11-year-old, she didn’t know about these programmes. She knows every rule in the book by the number, but she still didn’t know what we were doing. So that was our inspiration.”
Browning says that there are currently 27 Power Players whose counsel helps to inform the league’s decisions in several areas. Those selected to join the youth advisory board meet with the league twice a month to offer honest feedback on things such as marketing, fan engagement and social content.
This idea of humans over highlights and peeling off the visor of our NHL players and showing who they are – both on the ice and off the ice – is a huge mission of ours.Heidi Browning, Chief Marketing Officer, NHL
Expanding on exactly what the league has learned from its Power Players, Browning explains that the NHL has been able to identify “four key pillars of insight” which “either validate or drive our strategy”. The first of those, she says, is the idea that “humans are greater than highlights”, which is the notion that fans want to have a personal connection with athletes.
“Some fans are even following athletes in sports they don’t watch just because they’re interesting humans,” Browning notes. “So this idea of humans over highlights and peeling off the visor of our NHL players and showing who they are – both on the ice and off the ice – is a huge mission of ours. And that’s only been reinforced by our Power Players.”
Browning says the second pillar, which she calls “see me”, is about fandom being recognised by an athlete, team or the league. That, she says, has “driven a big pillar of content” for the league centred around creators and user-generated content.
The third pillar is around inclusivity, which Browning says is “at the forefront of the minds” of Gen Z.
“We know from a lot of generational studies that this generation actually votes with their time and their wallet with brands that align with their own values,” she continues. “So it’s really important that we are connected to and expressing our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
The fourth and final pillar, Browning explains, is about “the gamification of everything”.
“It’s not just esports, although that’s a huge part of it,” she continues. “But it’s just gamification, like participating in a poll, or a quiz, or a highlight battle – being able to show off your knowledge and your skills, and seeing how you measure up to other fans. That is critical for our fans, and is a key part of our fan engagement programmes that we launch across all of our digital channels.”
Indeed, Browning believes that in the search to engage with Gen Z, the NHL is benefitting from talking to its Power Players and listening to what they want to see, rather than talking at that particular demographic.
“They advise us on everything,” Browning states, listing various topics covered in the Power Players meetings, including media, technology, sports, and culture. “What’s really fascinating is just listening to them, watching how they watch games, how they interact with each other, how they use social media in conjunction with OTT or broadcast. So we’ve learned a lot from them.”
Peeling off the visors
Describing engagement with Gen Z as a “linchpin to our growth”, Browning reveals that when she first arrived at the NHL it had the fewest number of players on social media compared to other major sports leagues, and those that did have accounts were posting the least amount of content.
Now, though, Browning says that it is the NHL’s objective to provide more insight into the lives and personalities of the players who take to the ice each week.
“Hockey is known to be the most amazing sport to see live and in person, but when the guys get off the ice, they’re so quiet,” she observes. “It’s kind of tricky, because they’re on and off the ice in their shifts so quickly, you don’t get a chance to really see their faces, and they’re under all kinds of gear and equipment. So when you’re walking down the street and you walk by a hockey player, you may or may not even recognise them.
“So our mission has really been to peel off the visors, showcase the personality – not only their skills on the ice, but their personalities, their lives off the ice.”
Our mission has really been to peel off the visors, showcase the personality – not only their skills on the ice, but their personalities, their lives off the ice.Heidi Browning, Chief Marketing Officer, NHL
To help address some of the challenges in elevating the profile of ice hockey players in comparison to athletes in other sports, Browning explains that there is a group within the NHL’s social media team dedicated specifically to player social development, which uses tools like GreenFly to help the league’s stars to push content to their own audiences.
“When you have a sport where it’s an individual, it’s a lot easier,” Browning states. “When you have a sport where it’s a team, and especially in the culture of hockey, where you’re playing for the name on the front of the sweater, and not the name on the back of the sweater, there was a sort of cultural force that no one person rises above anyone else when you’re on the ice.
“There’s been a lot of education and encouragement from our commissioner to me and to my team, to across the entire hockey ecosystem, to really unlock this notion of: you can be both an amazing teammate on ice, and you can also be an amazing human off the ice. And it’s time for us to showcase that.
“So I’m super proud to say that, just this last summer, we had 674 players out of just over 700 post something on social media, which is like exponential growth.”
Happy but not yet satisfied with the NHL’s growing social media engagement, Browning is eager to develop the league’s efforts even further.
“We have the most engaged audience of all sports in social media,” Browning declares. “They’re loyal and they’re passionate, and they’re commenting and they’re sharing. We want to keep the conversation going.”
Browning also outlines how the NHL approaches the main social media services, highlighting that the league’s content is customised for each platform.
She describes Facebook, where the NHL shares game recaps, as a “staple” platform on which people spend a lot of time, while also acknowledging that it has a slightly older audience. Instagram, Browning adds, is one of the NHL’s “biggest and most consistent engagement platforms”. She also discusses the advantages of having Twitter as the “partner to broadcast”, allowing fans to have a conversation while they’re watching the game and enabling the league to connect with its followers around news, stats and information.
While pointing out that each platform “is so unique and different”, Browning highlights short-form video app TikTok in particular as an essential medium for engaging with younger audiences.
“TikTok really took off during the pandemic,” she notes. “That had exponential growth, we really love that platform because it’s real and raw, and it tends to skew younger and more female. That is absolutely one of our growth objectives – to connect with younger, more diverse and female audiences. So TikTok is really key and critical for that.”
Keeping up engagement in a pandemic
On the surface, the 2019/20 NHL season was far from traditional for the league and its fans. Yet while the pandemic created inevitable disruptions and challenges for the NHL, it was also a window for innovation – both on and off the ice.
Paused in March 2020, the league would later resume its 2019/20 campaign with a 24-team Stanley Cup playoffs, which culminated in the Lightning being crowned champions. During this time, though, Browning explains that the league sought to create content which would celebrate the NHL’s history, honour its most devoted fans, and reach new audiences even while the action was on hold.
The first of those initiatives was the ‘Hockey at Home’ programme, which encouraged supporters to showcase their love of the sport on social media during lockdown.
“When we had taken the pause for the season, we had no players on ice, we were looking for ways to keep our fans engaged,” Browning says. “And one of the ways we started it was with our Hockey at Home programme, where you showed us your fandom. Your fan cave, your greatest moment, your collection of jerseys, whatever it was, we just did a call-out to all of our fans to show off their Hockey at Home fandom.”
That concept soon evolved into a ten-episode broadcast television show which ran from April to June 2020. Early episodes featured interviews with some of the league’s legends – both past and present – such as the Washington Capitals’ Alexander Ovechkin and Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky, famously nicknamed ‘The Great One’.
Hockey at Home then went a step further with the 2021 release of a new ‘Fan Skills’ initiative, an All-Star-style series of challenges for fans rather than players. Supporters were encouraged to submit videos of themselves performing skills such as a shootout move, trick shot or accuracy, with the best being reposted on the NHL’s Instagram and TikTok accounts.
“If you think of Hockey at Home as showing us your fandom, this was showing us your absolute skills,” Browning explains. “Whether you were like a three-year-old or an 80-year-old skating, we had incredible love and content from that.”
One of the NHL’s more recent social media initiatives came during the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals, when the league introduced its #StanleyTweets campaign. Fans were invited to post on Twitter about the NHL’s champion-crowning series with the chance of having their tweets immortalised. The league then selected 52 tweets – corresponding to the 52 names the winning team gets on the trophy each season – to be etched into a silver plate and placed in the NHL’s Hall of Fame in Toronto.
According to Browning, it was a way of “paying tribute to those who stayed with us throughout the pandemic”.
“We really wanted to make this last year and a half, two years, a celebration and a tribute to our fans who stayed with us in spite of all the challenges,” she says.