By the numbers: Do hockey fans notice sponsor integrations?

Vividata's study of 3,500 Canadians shows that NHL fanatics are loyal and emotionally connected. But does that translate to brand loyalty?
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Hello out there, we’re on the air, it’s ‘Hockey Night’ tonight.
Tension grows, the whistle blows, and the puck goes down the ice.

In just over one week, the NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs take place. Currently, at least three Canadian teams (the Flames, Jets and Leafs) are essentially guaranteed to make the Playoffs, while the Habs have a good shot as well.

New data shows that no matter how well the teams do, most fans are still likely to stick by their teams. But does that necessarily mean they’re loyal to the brands that sponsor them?

In a Vividata study of 3,500 Canadians, 63% of respondents either agreed that the Leafs are their favourite team or that they follow them occasionally. The Leafs beat their longtime rivals the Montreal Canadiens, but just barely – the Habs pulled in 61% support.

Canada is widely recognized as the global home of hockey. More than half of Canadians (58%) follow hockey during the regular NHL season, and 11 million people saw a live game last year. And one in four hockey fans watch only hockey – no other professional leagues.

It’s probably not surprising that hockey fans are loyal, even if their team has a 50% chance (or lower) of making the Playoffs. But what’s the media impact of all that loyalty?

Standing out in a sea of brands

Sports, particularly hockey, are rife with sponsors and ad integrations. From segment sponsors like Huawei and Tim Horton’s to in-arena placements (like MLSE’s four new on-ice ad placements that it rolled out last season), there’s plenty of exposure to brands.

But according to Vividata, only half of fans say they are very or somewhat likely to notice sponsors.

TV is where they’re most likely to notice the sponsors; 62% said they notice sponsors on TV. In the venue, 28% say they notice the sponsor. OOH is close behind with 26% awareness and social sponsor integrations come in next at 21%. Radio, newspapers, sports sites and others are all under 20%.

Matthew Klar, VP of strategy with MKTG, isn’t discouraged by those numbers – he says noticing the sponsor is only one piece of the puzzle, just as sponsorship is only one portion of the ad spend.

“These kinds of stats don’t necessarily take into consideration who a brand is, and how they connect to a specific property,” he says. “If you do a hockey sponsorship, you pay to put some rink boards up and that’s it, then no, you’re not going to see results.”

Adam Mitchell, VP of strategy at IMI international, agreed that there has to be “an intensity factor.” In fact, although Mitchell says IMI’s own research into sponsorship does indicate that NHL integrations are more effective, he says he’s “not entirely surprised” by the numbers, specifically because there is such a multitude of sponsors out there. From rink boards to segment sponsors, official food and drink providers, apparel manufacturers and venue names, the biggest challenge, he says, is standing out.

“There always is a risk when you’re sponsoring a property that people might not notice, or if they do notice, it’s not authentic enough to stick around and resonate,” he says. “We as consumers probably witness activations that don’t make sense on a daily basis. But it’s worth the risk because of the sheer magnitude.

Activating on emotion

When it comes to hockey, fans are known to get quite emotional.

Of the fans Vividata surveyed, 76% somewhat or strongly agree that they feel “emotionally connected” with the Leafs and 79% feel that way about the Habs. The Winnipeg Jets tied with the Habs for the strongest emotional connection, although all the Canadian teams save for the Ottawa Senators and the Calgary Flames boasted between 70 and 80% in this metric. Most fans also agree with the statement that they would support their team regardless of their performance.

The good news for apparel manufacturers is that the loyalty leads to purchasing; 80% of NHL followers have purchased hockey merch at some point, and the average fan has spent $189 on merch in the last year. Adidas holds the rights to most of the Canadian team’s official merchandise.

But what to do if you’re not in the business of making jerseys or sticks?

Vividata’s study shows that loyalty to the team and purchasing their jerseys does not necessarily translate into loyalty toward other sponsors and brands. Vividata asked respondents: if they had to choose between two services of equal offerings, including price and quality, one of which was a sponsor and one of which was not, would they be more likely to choose the sponsor? Just under half (47%) said they’d choose the sponsor, but 47% say they were undecided, and 6% said they’d opt for the non-sponsor.

Klar says it takes genuine commitment to break that barrier. He cites one of MKTG’s biggest deals – Scotiabank’s naming rights to 2 Bay Street in Toronto, formerly known as the Air Canada Centre. Scotiabank has seen brand lift thanks to its hockey associations, he says. According to Scotiabank, people who are aware of the sponsorship are three times more likely to want to bank with it. This is big, he says, since “banking isn’t a category that you might typically associate with hockey. It’s not apparel, it’s not sticks and skates.”

So what did Scotiabank do that’s different? Klar says the difference was going all-in. “It’s an example of a brand that did so much more than just putting their name on the building.” Scotiabank has had hockey as part of its strategy for a number of years, with TV advertising, event sponsorship and more. “You have to look for brands that don’t treat [sponsorship] as a start and end point,” he says, adding that a serious media plan around it can tick off all the boxes – in-arena, on TV, OOH and more.

Mitchell adds that the quest to stand out from the pack is going to drive better marketing, regardless of category. “You don’t have to be sporting goods. Something like a pet food, it might not be a more natural fit, but we’ve seen brands step up their game. The NHL has become really open to more innovative ideas, and it’s forcing people to get creative.”

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